By Stephen Hudson-Mairet
I have just completed a one-week residency at Coastal Carolina University, where I created scenic designs for “The Laramie Project.” It has been an interesting process to design a show a little over a year after we produced the same show on Marquette’s campus. For those of you who saw the Marquette version, I thought I would share a bit about the process on this production.
The Coastal design was greatly influenced by two elements. The first was the space itself. The Wheelwright auditorium on the Coastal Carolina campus is vast—a large proscenium that is fairly deep. When I visited in October, I was struck by the openness—a quality I remember from my days in the great plains of Kansas. This is big sky country I wanted to represent, and this space would allow for that. At the same time, I wanted to maintain the opportunity for intimacy between the audience and the performers, as the play consists of a series of monologues. I ended up with a large open rake that could be filled with furniture and performers that was backed by a large projection screen. The play is book-ended by a large projection of the sky in the day time at the beginning, and the night-time starry sky at the end.
My second influence was the play itself. On re-reading “The Laramie Project” this fall, I was struck by how this is really a play about a community, and the impact this event had on that community. It is centered around the heinous crime committed on Matthew Shepard, but the play illustrates the impact, reaction and tenor of the community in many ways. I sought to represent the community in abstract through the scenic design. I did this by dividing the three acts into scenic movements—the first act has large steel frames that fly just in front of the projection screen— these frames fly in and out and represent the multitude of voices and personal lenses that the story is told through. The second act brings in a barrage of video panels that attack the audience with news media, much like the town of Laramie experienced. The fact that CCU had a large supply of surplus flat panel video screens was a big plus. The third act clears the visual field to bring us toward resolution.
I am proud to have been involved in this important production twice in the past year—once as the department chair and main cheerleader, and as the scenic designer of this latest project. “The Laramie Project” is a show that has the capability to make great change in the world. Had Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project not undertaken this venture, the story of Matthew Shepard may have gone the way of many a media story—hot today, gone tomorrow. The fact that audiences continue to hear of Matthew’s story, and hopefully commit to make a change in their world accordingly, is heartening. It is one of the reasons we have a Theatre and Social Justice commitment at Marquette—to work with our audiences to use theatre to focus on issues of injustice in the world in order to actively make our communities better.
Stephen Hudson-Mairet is an artistic assistant professor, artistic director and chair of Performing and Media Arts at Marquette University. The Laramie Project opens on Thursday in the Wheelwright auditorium on the Coastal Carolina University campus in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.