‘The Laramie Project’ was a big success in Tyler, but fallout continues as gay man steps down from theater’s board

Posted on 13 Jul 2010 at 1:22pm
A production photo from the Facebook page of The Laramie Project.

Chris Abraham, the gay producer of The Laramie Project, reports that the production raised $14,950 during its controversial three-day run at the Tyler Civic Theatre last month, making it the venue’s most successful show ever.

A total of 768 people saw the play about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. Of the proceeds, $5,430 went to Tyler AIDS Services and $870 went to Special Health Resources of Texas. The balance of the money raised went to the theater itself, helping it to recover from “its horrible financial quagmire,” Abraham said in an e-mail.

If you’ll remember, the theater’s Board of Directors considered nixing the production this spring in response to the concerns of residents in the conservative East Texas town, prompting a rally that drew about 100 people.

“If you were one of the 768 people who saw this play, I know that you know that hope is now present, and there is a powerful new conversation that has started about how things ‘can be’ for all of us. From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU!” Abraham said in the e-mail.

Unfortunately, Abraham added that he plans to step down from the theater’s board due to fallout from the production. Abraham said four days after the production closed, Board President Ray Deal called to tell him he was being removed as vice president of production for the theater, a volunteer position, because he was “challenging” Deal’s decisions too much. In response to being removed as VP of production, Abraham said he plans to submit his resignation from the board.

“I am proud of all that I have accomplished for the theatre during my three years on the board,  and I wish them good luck on all their upcoming plays,” Abraham said. “Thank you again for your support of this important and life-changing production. I look forward to seeing all of you this fall when we bring The Laramie Project – Ten Years Later to the stage.”

Abraham said The Laramie Project — Ten Years Later will be staged in another venue, and none of the proceeds will go to the theater.

Also, I recently received a moving recap of the production of The Laramie Project from gay director Trinity Wheeler, the New York resident who returned to his hometown to stage the play. Here’s what Wheeler wrote:

Theatre cannot exist without an audience – someone to observe. To listen. A show isn’t a show without someone to show it to. And that was the point of producing The Laramie Project in Tyler: to tell the story to those who had not heard it. And, more specifically, those who needed to hear it.

The Tyler Civic Theatre operates primarily on the sale of season tickets from their patrons, and, though our production was a special event, apart from the main theater season, we, too, imagined the success of the show would be measured by the number of tickets sold in advance. Tickets became available to the public over a month before we opened, and by the time we reached our final rehearsal, we found we had sold-out only one night … and that was after totaling the number of pre-sold tickets for all three performances. This news was disappointing, certainly, but the company carried such a resilient resolve throughout the entire rehearsal process, and they were not about to abandon the morale they worked to keep afloat over modest ticket sales. We agreed if only one person sat in the audience, and was inspired to think — or better yet, discuss his thoughts, and consider those of others — we would have accomplished what we set out to do.

Sales aside, the company was dealt a steady stream of hard blows in their personal lives. Two actors lost their partners days before opening, and another, his friend and father-in-law, just weeks apart. Given the subject of the script, these tragedies added a new — albeit painful — significance for the actors, especially those affected personally. Scenes describing the discovery of Matthew Shepard’s body, and lines such as, “I hope she doesn’t go before me. I just couldn’t handle that,” were now delivered with newfound, heartbreaking authenticity. It hit too close to home — let alone the fact Tyler was still healing from its own version of the Matthew Shepard incident in the murder of Nicholas West. I believe we all witnessed, firsthand, how truly fragile, finite, and ultimately unpredictable life can be. And, if we hadn’t before, we now completely identified with the line, “Go home. Give your kids a hug. And don’t let a day go by without telling them you love them.” Never have I worked with a cast that endured so much hardship and loss, but, in turn, neither have I worked with a group of people who shared such genuine love and support for one another. They banded together as a family — a community — in the wake of tragedy. And that is exactly what this show is about. And they all knew it must go on.

Performance weekend arrived, and we soon found our sorrows would only be matched by soaring joys. We knew we had a show, but none of us imagined we would have a hit on our hands. Opening night was overwhelming. Supporters showed up in droves, and we played to a few seats shy of a packed house, even on closing night. Our ticket sales were made mostly in walk-ups, and we were elated in the realization that, not only would the theater and our two, benefiting local charities receive a significant contribution from the community, but hundreds of people were hearing Matthew’s story. Most for the first time. It was quite clear East Texans were hungry for this brand of theater. In the curtain speech, we would read a letter Judy Shepard wrote to our company, and, though that alone was so emotionally overpowering, seeing a generationally, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse audience surrounding the in-the-round stage — in a theater which generally caters to one demographic — proved to be equally moving. As part of the lobby display, we hung the hundreds of letters written by people from across the country, sent to the theater in support of our show. Looking across the ribbons of multi-colored paper cascading down the walls, it would soften the hardest of hearts. I imagine we were all quietly reciting the words of Harry Woods, a Laramie resident portrayed in the show: “Thank God that I got to see this in my lifetime.”

After opening night, our stage manager shared a personal story in a letter to the cast and crew. He explained how his relationship with his mother fell apart following his coming out — a familiar story for so many of us. For whatever reason, she came to see a performance of The Laramie Project, even though she had not attended any production he worked with in the three years since his honest discussion with her. When he arrived home, he found she had waited up for him to begin an overdue conversation with her son, apologizing for her distance and the time lost. She expressed how, if it were possible, she would reverse time and respond as a mother should, with unconditional love. She also told her best friend, unashamedly, that her son was gay — breaking a silence she kept for years. And all because of one show.

This young man’s story — along with the countless others we received through comments on our Facebook page, e-mails and letters, and while holding the hands of audience members after performances — serves as proof that this production does indeed changes lives. And, perhaps, saves them. A Hebrew text adopted by many reads, “To save one life is to save the world.” If these words carry any truth, I can’t imagine what we’ve done, here, in quiet Tyler, Texas. And though we fulfilled our mission to inspire at least one person to engage in educated conversation about silenced subjects, our work has only begun. We plan to return in October with the original cast to perform a staged reading of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later — and continue the much needed community dialogue.

For now, we return to our lives and loved ones, and, with each day that passes, we remember the friends we’ve made, and the ones we’ve lost. And each day, we hold out for hope. From the protests to the performances, the personal tragedies to personal triumphs, it has been incredibly rewarding to watch as we grew from The Little Production That Could, to The Inspiring Production That Continues. To borrow one last line from the the people of Laramie, Wyo., “It was absolutely one of the most — beautiful things I’ve ever done in my life.”

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