Trinity Wheeler just wanted to give his hometown a meaningful production of ‘The Laramie Project.’ He ended up sparking a political controversy
THE LARAMIE PROJECTS
Tyler Civic Theatre,
400 Rose Park Drive, Tyler.
June 17â€“19 at 7:30 p.m. $20.
Certainly Trinity Wheeler — who grew up as a geeky gay kid among the roses and Baptist churches of Tyler — never considered his hometown a bastion of liberalism. But the controversy that befell his efforts at mounting a production of The Laramie Project caught him completely off-guard.
"I feel the country has come so far when it comes to gay rights, so it’s interesting going back to Tyler because this community hasn’t moved forward," he says. "There’s still fear of the word ‘gay.’ That’s what we’ve been facing with this show. The Laramie Project has no agenda — it’s not a ‘gay’ play or a ‘race’ play or a ‘class’ play. It’s across the board about the effect of a crime on a small town. But they hear the words ‘Matthew Shepard’ and it’s gay panic!"
Wheeler knows what he’s talking about.
"I grew up in the country. My dad was a bull rider and my mom was a rodeo queen — like Miss America on horses. And I said ‘I wanna do musical theater!’"
He got interested in theater as a ninth grader when he attended theater at summer camp at Stephen F. Austin University. It was there he met Josh Allbright, a gay kid who proudly wore a rainbow belt.
"I loved him!" Wheeler still says with genuine affection. "He gave me his gay Pride belt and I wore it to my private Episcopalian school. That did not go so well."
And other students weren’t the issue, he says — its was the teachers, the chaplain, the headmaster. Things weren’t much better at home, either.
"I just needed to get out of East Texas," he says.
Wheeler made it through high school and moved to Houston, where he worked at the box office of the Alley Theater. There, he heard Holiday Spectacular on Ice was looking for a singer.
"I got me some skates and went to the Galleria and got a coach and learned to skate in two weeks," he says. He got the part. From there, he went on to be cast in a tour of Damn Yankees as a dancer.
Watching how shows changed as they moved from venue to venue began to fascinate him more than performing. That’s when he got involved in stage management, first with the national tour of Oklahoma!, then The Producers, The Wedding Singer and Rent; he’s been dividing his time managing the new tour of Young Frankenstein while getting Laramie off the ground.
"My whole career, people have said to me, ‘I’ll help you, but when you can, you have to help somebody else out,’" he says. "So I’ve always wanted to come back to my home theater and do something." And The Laramie Project seemed like the perfect opportunity.
"I know what it’s like to grow up as a gay kid there — it’s not nice," he says. "I know what it’s like to be in an environment where you’re not accepted. It was like hell on earth. Now I’m in a position to help that 18-year-old try to figure out how to live his life."
Wheeler’s whole intent was to help save the Tyler Civic Theater, which has suffered declining season ticket sales and a graying subscriber base.
"They do living room comedies — the Neil Simon stuff," he says. "They wanted me to come back and do a show. I presented titles and said ‘I think The Laramie Project would work well in that space.’ The play [about the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard gay bashing on the town where it occurred] was a go but for one board member and one staff member — two people — who have real problems with it," he says. They were especially upset that the Tyler Area Gays group would have its name featured on the website for the theater.
There was an historic significance in his choice of play. "A major hate crime happened in our back yard," he says.
Tyler is home to the Nicholas West murder, a 1993 incident where three young men posed as gays and lured West out and killed him. Wheeler hoped Laramie would help salve those lingering wounds.
"This show is the best thing for the gay community. They are quiet at times but they are blooming now. It’s not like they have all these outlets," he says. Still, he was unprepared for the reaction.
"I don’t expect Tyler to change over night but something’s gotta give. Small steps will get us on the way," he says. "I hear the word all the time about this ‘close-knit family’ at the theater — but to me that just means ‘closed.’ The community has overwhelmingly supported this production. More than 100 supporters have come out for the show. There have been over 500 letters of support and I think six against it … and all six had the same verbiage."
Ultimately, though, he feels the protests had the exact opposite effect.
"Before we’re even in rehearsal and the play has already accomplished what it set out to do," Wheeler says. "The show’s not a side dish anymore, it’s the main course. The fact the show’s happening there is fantastic. Because the show is very different from what the theater normally does, there’s still a fear within the theater it will alienate its audience base. But the audience isn’t as dumb as they are making them out to be. I think it uncovered a lot of deep-seated fear in the community. But instead of ‘Let’s go on another day and be 10 years in the same place,’ there’s a sense of ‘Let’s move forward and make a difference.’"
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 11, 2010.