Moises Kaufman

by Anne Marie Welsh | Aug 20, 2001
Moises Kaufman Soon after mild-mannered student Matthew Shepard was found savagely beaten and tied to a fence in Laramie, the media descended upon the Wyoming town. `Round-the-clock reports came during a national vigil as the gay 21-year-old slowly died, and the nature of the hate crime became clear.

Within a month of the October 1998 beating, New York writer-director Moises Kaufman knew he wanted to explore the death and the community in which it happened.

"There was the immediate horror and sadness and the brutality of it, of course. You couldn`t look in the newspaper for many days that year and not see Matthew Shepard`s face," says Kaufman, a theatrical innovator. "It became a watershed moment for the nation and for my work. I`m interested in those moments when a culture turns, when a community or society becomes aware of its actions and must change itself."

Kaufman`s thoughtful and enormously successful play "Gross Indecency; The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" (1992) was about that kind of moment, when Wilde`s prosecution and imprisonment for homosexual acts became a public referendum on English hypocrisy.

"When an event like that occurs," Kaufman says, "it is so large that a community must take it in. One must listen."

Kaufman recently brought his Tectonic Theater company and their collaborative "The Laramie Project" to La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse. Sold-out houses in Denver, Laramie and New York listened last year to the montage of voices affected by Shepard`s death.

Earlier this summer, Berkeley Rep staged the praised piece about a town indelibly marked, and changed, by its notoriety.

"Our idea was to go to Laramie at this bad moment. We might be able to understand something about where we are as a culture. I mean the country as a whole," Kaufman says. "The company had never done anything of this (documentary) nature. But I talked to the members and knew we would interview people, though we didn`t know then that a play was going to come of it."

So just a month after the murder, Kaufman and nine members of his company, the Tectonic Theater Project, flew to Laramie to get a feel for the land and to interview as many people as they could.

"We weren`t journalists, obviously, in that our purpose was not to write anything journalistic, but to create a very personal piece of theater," Kaufman says.

The company made seven trips to Laramie, conducting 200 interviews. Kaufman`s mission for his Tectonic company is to explore theatrical themes and form.

"We`re a laboratory for theater, asking how can theater remain alive and important in this culture. How is theater made? It made sense (to proceed) for its subject matter after `Gross Indecency` and as part of our larger theatrical exploration."

Early in the process, four of Kaufman`s associates formed a writers group headed by actor-writer Leigh Fondakowski. After four workshops, the company premiered "The Laramie Project" at the Denver Center Theatre in February 2000.

Because Denver is within a couple of hours of Laramie, many people who had become characters in the piece attended. The experience "was immediately intimate and very emotional," says "Laramie Project" designer and Sledgehammer founder Robert Brill. "People interviewed started to show up for the previews. A piece like this, because it has so much to do with the voices of a community, became to all of us even more special."


Most regional theaters operate on a corporate, factory model, with a staff of specialists together putting out "product," much of it generic.

"Theater in America is very structured," Kaufman notes. "Writers write, and directors direct and actors act.

"We operate differently. We transcribed the tapes. Not one member of the company knew all that the other members had gathered. During a three-week workshop after our first visit, we each presented to the group some of the interviews that we had done. Because we all couldn`t listen to all of the transcriptions, the company already became editors."

And so it went through 170 more interviews and three more workshops until the group had created a script. Many predecessors have created such documentary drama, including Emily Mann, whose "theater of testimony" has tackled such issues as the Vietnam War, and, more pointedly, Anna Deavere-Smith, who transformed the Crown Heights disturbances in Brooklyn and the 1992 Los Angeles riots into stunning, solo evenings of theater.

Kaufman`s initial motivation was similar to theirs.

"We wanted to see what happened to the town of Laramie during the year after the murder occurred, so in the back of our heads, we knew we would be there for the trials of the perpetrators. That would be our time frame."

Over the 10-year existence of Tectonic Theatre Project, Kaufman says: "We`ve developed ways of generating our material. We call them tectonic techniques, designed to create theater from a structuralist perspective."

Looking back on the Laramie experience, Kaufman says: "The whole thing was very strange because most of us had never conducted an interview. Not knowing (how to) served us well. We wanted to hear what people wanted to speak. It was very clear that we were trying to listen."

Being in the Wyoming courtroom for the trial of one assailant, Aaron McKinney, proved even more intense.

"That raised all kinds of ethical questions for us," he says. "What right had we to be there? We`re theater people. We`re not used to being in criminal trials sitting next to the mother of the murdered boy. I had to ask, `What am I doing to my company members, bringing them into a situation of this nature.`"


Kaufman is from an upper-middle-class Venezuelan family.

"I went to Central University in Caracas for business administration. After the first hour of accounting, I decided I had to do theater," he says.

He joined the university`s theater collective, Thespis, where "visionary director" Fernando Ivosky was a disciple of such grounded experimenters as Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski.

After five years as an actor doing plays by Ionesco, Moliere and Ivosky - and after much time spent mulling issues of being gay, and especially the difficulty of being gay in Venezuela`s macho culture - Kaufman knew he wanted to direct. There was no such opening for him in Thespis, so he came to New York, much to the consternation of his Latin-Jewish parents.

"They reacted badly at first," Kaufman says. "They wanted me to be a businessman, get married and give them many grandchildren. Now, though, they are very supportive."

Kaufman had learned a good deal of craft, he says, "but not a lot of the theoretical basis for the work I wanted to do."

The experimental theater wing of New York University`s theater program proved "the perfect place. By the time I left, I knew I wanted to start my own theater company." And so he did.

It was equally clear to Kaufman that he "didn`t want to have a theater company that (mechanically) produced four plays a season." Process and formal experimentation were going to be his emphasis. Today, his managing director (and partner of 11 years) Jeff LaHoste and actor Andy Paris still remain from that first group. Their initial works were inventive stagings of unusual texts - "The Nest," for instance, by the German avant-gardist Franz Xavier Kroetz, and "Marlowe`s Eye" by UCSD-trained Naomi Iizuka, and "Three Women in Beckett," culled from Samuel Beckett dramas. Also in his repertory: the later plays of Tennessee Williams, in which the playwright "was departing from lyrical realism."

Then came Kaufman`s breakthrough: "It became clear that if I was devoted to this kind of formal exploration, I could only go so far with pre-existing texts."

He set to work on his Oscar Wilde project. And remarkably, Kaufman`s first original play was also his first wide-scale hit, "Gross Indecency." Beautifully structured and as visually interesting as it is psychologically astute, "Gross Indecency" had an 18-month off-Broadway run that spawned companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and London.

That success gave Tectonic the wherewithal to begin its research in Laramie. With the head of the theater program at the University of Wyoming, Rebecca Hilliker, supporting him, the door to the Western town opened. And though Kaufman set up certain ground rules for safety - no one was to conduct an interview without a partner; everyone carried a cell phone - the artists found many surprises along the way.

When Brill visited Laramie to absorb the landscape for design ideas, he realized the crime could have occurred anywhere. He found himself "almost in the back yard of Russell Henderson," one of Shepard`s two assailants, who avoided trial by pleading guilty to kidnapping and murder in a plea bargain.

"It was a run-down development that looked as if it never got finished. This was where he grew up with his grandmother, though it could have been the central California town (Paso Robles) where my grandmother lived. This event wasn`t really specific to Laramie."

A Catholic priest sympathetic to Shepard and the Tectonic enterprise, a vigorously protesting lesbian student, a haunting female deputy sheriff and many closeted homosexuals were among the many surprises the Tectonic researchers found.

The second-to-last development stage took place at Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah, where Robert Blacker, the longtime Playhouse dramaturge, is artistic director. More material was folded in during rehearsals in Denver, after McKinney`s trial and sentencing to life imprisonment.

Reviews have been uniformly positive, with even the ever-skeptical John Simon of New York magazine calling the work "a terrific piece of theater, history and life in the heartless heartlands. Both the individual pieces and their assemblage here are nothing short of stunning, in both senses of the word."

In a long and lyrical essay in American Theatre magazine, critic Don Shewey wrote, "Although the play factually recounts the events that took place on the night of Shepard`s beating, the three-day vigil before he died and the trials of his assailants, `The Laramie Project` is not primarily a re-enactment of the crime but a portrait of a small town - think of an `Our Town` 2000."

That`s exactly the parallel that Playhouse artistic director Des McAnuff drew when he announced the Tectonic piece on a season with Michael Greif`s "Our Town," and two other works about living in the West: Annie Weisman`s new "Be Aggressive," and Michael Ondaatje`s stage adaptation of "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid."

"What`s depressing about American theater," says Kaufman with unerring logic, "is that 90 percent of the work done is naturalism and realism, which is: (a) a 19th century form, and (b), better done by movies and television. I like to ask myself what is the thing that only that medium can do, that only film can do."

The Playhouse is exploring such questions as well. A newcomer to the film medium, Kaufman is wrapping up post-production for the HBO film of "The Laramie Project," scheduled to air in February.

"I am a firm believer in the integrity of the medium and that there are certain things only theater can do well."

Despite his widening reputation, Kaufman says he asks himself every day these central questions: "Is theater something that I can participate in? Can we still have a national dialogue in the theater about national events?"

So far, his answers to both questions have been a resounding "Yes."

(SIDEBAR - Life In Laramie, Other Plains Towns, Beset By Loneliness)

By Jennifer de Poyen

Copley News Service

On the northern edge of the Great Plains, just off the main highway, lies the little town of Ponoka, Alberta. From the road, the only visible structure is a run-down motel - a Batesian place, in my memory. Even as a child growing up on the prairies, I knew that Ponoka was also home to the Loony Bin.

It was a place, my grandma would dryly remark, gesturing out the window of our speeding car, "for all those poor housewives who went nuts on the prairies."

A city girl who traveled from Plains town to town in the 1940s and `50s with her banker husband, Grandma once shared her cure for the prairie blues with another forlorn woman, who had just arrived in pancake-flat Regina, Saskatchewan.

"Whenever the wind blows so hard that I can`t hear myself think," she told her without a trace of humor, "I go upstairs and beat my head against the wall until I feel better."

The winds - not to mention the long, cold winters, the short, often vengefully hot summers, the ceaselessly open spaces - drive a lot of people crazy on the Plains. Like abandoned farmhouses, herds of cattle, mile-upon-mile of low-slung fences and protective stands of deciduous trees, isolation is a constant feature of the landscape.

Perhaps it is that incipient loneliness, always lurking beyond the razor-edged horizon, that makes Plains people so uncommonly friendly. There`s an instinctive reaching out that visitors often remark upon, and that residents take for granted.

Outsiders marvel that Matthew Shepard - the gay student who was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo., and whose ghost haunts Moises Kaufman`s "The Laramie Project" at La Jolla Playhouse - would get into a car with a pair of strangers for anything other than drugs or sex. But in towns like Laramie, offering and accepting rides are common practice, not usually a prelude to murder. On the prairies, people help people, if only because one day they themselves might need a hand.


Geographically, the boundaries of the Great Plains have never been clear. And though the Wild West is long gone, prairie people retain a similarly unbounded spirit, their visions of freedom nurtured by the open road, dominated by the drama of the sky and fed by colorful histories and cowboy legends, which run like the wind across the prairies.

Arid, sparsely populated and heavily cultivated, the Plains cut a swath across two of the world`s vastest lands - 1,500 miles from the Saskatchewan River, which runs through three Canadian provinces, to the Balcones Escarpment in southern Texas. From their western edge, sharply defined by the sudden, spectacular rise of the Rocky Mountains, the land slopes gently, steadily eastward toward the Mississippi River, at a dizzyingly regular rate of 10 feet per mile. At any given moment, the prairie can seem utterly flat, a modest pedestal for a sky as large as dreams.

In Wyoming, the mountains get most of the attention; Yellowstone, the country`s first national park, founded in 1872, is beloved by tourists, as are the nearby Grand Tetons. Gathering speed from those peaks, the wind unpacks across the high, desolately beautiful prairie that surrounds the town of Laramie.

From the protected shell of a car, the eastern Wyoming landscape beckons, beguiling as a shining desert, the cool expanse of sea. Get out and walk the land, though, and you`re likely to step on a short, fierce cactus, camouflaged by spiky, fatigue-colored grass. Outside of town, you could walk for miles and never see a soul.

It`s no wonder that Matthew Shepard and his killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson - men of widely divergent backgrounds, experiences and education - all liked to hire limousines to drive them around while they drank. One doesn`t so much visit a prairie as make miles across it, on the way to somewhere else, or nowhere at all.


Despite its newfound notoriety as the place where Shepard was brutally slain, Laramie is a pleasant, relatively liberal town of about 27,000. In its earliest incarnation, it was built on sex and the railroad, but these days most people are employed by the government and the state`s only university. The local credo - "Live and let live" - echoes the state`s motto, "Equal Rights," and the region`s tradition of equality; women won the vote there first, decades before the federal government extended the right to all American women.

Yet with the "Live and let live" culture often comes willful denial, an unwillingness to inquire into "other people`s business," or even to question one`s own lifestyle and beliefs. In Wyoming, the least densely populated state in the Union, alcohol abuse is widespread, and toxic; domestic abuse and DUIs account for most crime.

In researching her 1999 article about the Shepard case for Harper`s magazine, JoAnn Wypijewski reported that in Albany County, which includes Laramie, there were 3,958 calls, almost all from women, to a local domestic-abuse hotline in 1997-98 - this in a place with a female population of 14,869. The vast majority of domestic-abuse cases go unreported, not to mention unpunished.

Drugs, and especially the feel-no-pain, paranoia- and bender-inducing methamphetamine, are also rampant; like so many others in the bone-wearing construction trade, McKinney and Henderson were known to be users. They were reportedly addled by the effects of a multiday bender when they lured a young, gay stranger into a lonely field, tied him to a fence, brutally beat and robbed him, and left him to die.

In the aftermath of the Shepard slaying, townspeople defended themselves against charges of homophobia, hate-mongering and cultural complicity by disavowing the killers, expressing heartfelt sorrow for the killing. They pointed out that such terrible things can and do happen elsewhere.

Indeed, in the three years since Shepard was beaten to death, dozens of other American gays have been gruesomely murdered; one was beheaded. None of those crimes, though, has resonated like the Oct. 6, 1998, slaying in Laramie.

Why did the Shepard case attract so much media attention, capture so many people`s imaginations, galvanize public opinion on gay rights?

Perhaps it`s because early reports describing the killing as a crucifixion suggested an image of gay suffering that finally struck a chord with mainstream America. Perhaps the fact that Shepard was portrayed more as a boy than a man helped defuse the explosive issue of gay sexuality. Perhaps the fact that he was a white, well-dressed, good-looking student with affluent, supportive parents made people identify more strongly with him.

And perhaps, too, it`s because the Plains, with its Wild West past, has long been the repository of our dreams and nightmares. A place where anyone with determination and a dream plucked out of the clear blue sky could come and carve out a piece of the American pie. A place whose tales of stampeding buffalo and bellicose American Indians terrorize and titillate, where hallucinatory characters such as Billy the Kid and Wyoming-born "Buffalo Bill" Cody loom as large as the land itself. A place onto which the Hollywood mythmaking machine has projected stark stories of good guys and bad guys: In the mass-media portrayal of the Laramie killing, Matthew Shepard had to be Good, just as Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had to be Evil.

Laramie sits near the Continental Divide, often called "the backbone of a continent," which sends rivers streaming in opposite directions from Alaska to Mexico. The Shepard murder cracked open the national debate on gay rights, mobilizing longtime supporters to push for public-policy changes and provoking a re-examination among many of deeply held beliefs about the sins of being, and living, gay. For better or worse, the 21-year-old - bled of life as he lay lashed to a desolate fence - has been resurrected as a martyr.

In the old stories of the Wild West, the dead were anonymous, their murderers celebrated as outlaw heroes - defenders of a code, and a way of life. In the end, perhaps the most striking thing about this heinous murder is that Matthew Shepard`s name, and not his killers`, survives.

San Diego Union-Tribune Library researcher Beth Wood contributed to this article.

(c) Copley News Service

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Author: Anne Marie Welsh


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