by Paul Kiernan
Tuesday, Oct. 1, roughly 20 University of Mississippi football players roused ignorance and cruelty during the school’s stage adaptation of The Laramie Project, heckling, defaming and throwing out gay slurs. I was torn about the reaction, but don’t get me wrong, it was disgraceful and they should be educated about what they did. But, it was a reaction, a verbal, gut reaction to the performance being presented. Sometimes we forget about that.
I have been very lucky having worked with incredibly talented actors in nontraditional places. I have done renaissance faires and street theater at Disney, and in those cases if there was no reaction, no interaction, it was clear the material was not working.
Sometimes, when I am working in a traditional theater setting or on a film, I long for those immediate reactions from an audience, more than just laughter or applause when it is appropriate. When I was doing Jeff Metcalf’s one-man show about prostate cancer, there were some nights when the audience would verbally react to me. Men would say things about procedures they had undergone that I was describing on stage. Live theater is, and should be, open to that.
The Laramie Project is a very rough, challenging piece of theater. I have never done it, but I have seen it, and it makes me squirm and shudder and feel many things. There are so many emotional levels running through that piece. If I were homophobic, I am sure it would move me on a different level. I would wonder about the emotions I was feeling. I would not know how to deal with them. And, if I were not a person who had attended theater often, did not know the etiquette, I too may have shouted out to fend off the demons creeping into me. I would have been moved, disturbed, had a real reaction to what I was seeing. I may have reacted in a way that was not expected by the actors. But, I would have reacted, as did those students.
I believe the actors in this show should be hugged. But not out of pity. They should be hugged because they caused people to actually feel something. It appears that feeling was most likely fear. Let’s hug them because they were brave enough to undertake this show at that school. Not only did the actors cause a homophobic reaction, they also opened the door for UM to possibly address the root cause of the reactions. Maybe those students who shouted and reacted in this manner will learn something about Matthew Shepard and his tragic death that will open their eyes to that thoughtless, cruel hate crime.
In theater we all want good reviews and polite audiences, but actors should never forget that their core job is to hold a mirror up to society. If you are a racist, a bigot, a homophobe, and the mirror that is being held up to you is so real, so true and cuts so close to the bone that you react, then the actors have done the job that Thespis set out to do many years ago.
I had the chance to work with a gifted director named Matt Arbour, who said, “Don’t worry about your laughs, because they aren’t your laughs, they are the audience’s laughs.”
I believe the same applies here. The reaction is the audience’s. Some nights, it is not going to be what we think is right or acceptable, but we run that risk when we are on stage telling a story. If we tell it right, tell it truthfully, tell it with skill and risk it all, the audience will be invested and moved, and hopefully react. They will forget it is a play. They will forget where they are. In this instance, some of the audience allowed their reactions to spill out, if inappropriately.
In theater we have to embrace, and further the understanding, of all human nature. We are not better than other people, and we need to create them and portray them without judgement.
Publius Terentius Afer said, “I am human; nothing human is alien to me.”
Actors, must know this, feel this, embrace this as much as we can. The human animal is not always good and it is not always right. But, it is always human. The people brutally murdered Matthew Shepard were not right, and this play shows that clearly and beautifully. But, what if those people who believe the Bible says homosexuals are wrong and they need to be changed, saved or destroyed? They truly believe this. It is human. How do you think those people feel when they see this story played out in front of them? When they see their beliefs being questioned and struck very hard with a hammer of truth? It may not be right, but their feelings are real.
We can change their thinking, show them they are not right to hate someone because of sexual orientation, yet no one learns by being shouted at and ridiculed. So what happened in this performance can be turned and used for good. We can answer their negative words with quiet, clear, reasonable truths and hopefully, they will hear it, learn it, understand it and change. Humans can adapt and change.
I applaud the students at UM for doing this show. And they did not stop, they continued on. I know they will remember this performance; it will be a badge that they wear. This performance will have a lasting affect. Hopefully, that lasting affect will hold true the students who vented their fears.
Actors, this is what it means to risk. This is what it means to affect an audience. This is what plays like The Laramie Project are all about. Bravo UM theater, thanks for having the guts and reminding us of why we do this.