D'Youville students chronicle Buffalo in the time of Covid-19
The Laramie Project serves as inspiration
Confronted with having to transition his Introduction to Theatre Production class online, teaching artist Ben Michael also wanted to have the work his students did be meaningful for the time we're in. Inspired by The Laramie Project, a play created from verbatim interviews in the wake of Matthew Shepard's murder in Laramie, Wyoming, Moran asked each student to find a subject or two to interview each week over the rest of the semester with an eye toward compiling material into a verbatim play that would chronicle this time in Buffalo.
After spending the first half of the semester learning what elements go into production, Moran’s class was ready to dive into “the play,” with The Laramie Project on the syllabus. “In the wake of having to transfer everything online in a matter of days I did what most theater artists do instinctively and I put myself in their shoes: full-time students, studying demanding subjects, most of them working and they have to transfer all of their learning online. I was overwhelmed just imagining their new reality, let alone actually experiencing it, so the artist in me said, ‘damn the syllabus, the units, the lectures and final exam, it's time to heal through expression and creation.’ And that's essentially how I explained it to the class. I said, ‘I think you're about to learn much more about why human connection is at the heart of theater than you were ever going to with my original syllabus.’”
In having students choose their subjects, Moran wanted a variety of both occupations and living situations, so there’s a teacher, a PhD student, a nurse, a small business owner, someone who lives alone, someone married with children, among others. “We wanted to get different perspectives and focus on perspectives that seemed particularly interesting and/or relevant during this unprecedented time,” he explains. “Two thirds of the class is interviewing and the other third is doing dramaturgical style research, as well as compiling copyright free media, like music, images, and public broadcast excerpts that might be used in the final script and/or production.”
On-line class time is spent discussing submissions and identifying areas to further explore. “Their interviews get better with each week,” Moran shares. “They've talked about feeling more comfortable each time and it shows in their questions and follow-up questions. I can see a real curiosity in there, a real desire to connect to the person they’re interviewing. They also reflect on their interviews in a journal format and that's where I've seen their brilliance shine. Once I gave them the freedom to express themselves, they ran with it.”
To allow that self-expression, Moran chose to spend one class allowing the students to interview each other in a guided discussion. “They seemed to need that space to talk about their own experiences,” he says. “They're so smart and they're experiencing and adapting so much and they want to talk about it; they want to come our Zoom class and get it out. They kind of have carte blanche to attend class or not, they can discuss and participate online regardless, but they still show up ready to work, ready to share, create, discuss, learn, and grow. They inspire me each and every time we meet.”
The plan is to examine the big picture, review the material, and discuss a final structure inspired by Tectonic Theater Project’s (creator of The Laramie Project) trademarked Moment Work. “In a nutshell,” Moran explains, Moment Work is a laboratory style of devising a play that utilizes the plasticity of the stage to create a unique collection of moments that tells a story.
“It would be wonderful if, by the end of the semester, we had a script that could be read by professional actors on Zoom,” Moran continues. “Ultimately, we may collaborate with The Kavinoky Theatre and the work [Executive Artistic Director] Loraine O'Donnell has been doing in collecting written submissions from theater patrons. I'd love for the final product to be available in the public domain, free for anyone to read or produce at will. And if the play ever ends up on any size stage I will make sure to let all of the authors know and hopefully we could have a reunion celebration at the opening performance.”