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Playwright Kaufman's 'Own Life'
2005-05-01

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By José Orozco

From his play about Oscar Wilde's judicial persecution, Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, to his play and subsequent film The Laramie Project, which explored the murder of Matthew Shepard, to the Tony Award-winning I Am My Own Wife, which he directed, Venezuelan writer Moisés Kaufman tackles universal subjects through the prism of his own experience.

Q: How was your theater company received when you visited Laramie?

A: By the time we got there, four weeks after Matthew's death, the media had already been there en masse. And the way the media portrayed Laramie was very biased. They portrayed it as a town full of hillbillies, rednecks, and cowboys. So, of course, a crime of this nature could happen in a town like that, but it wouldn't happen anywhere else in the country.

Well, what we found was rather the opposite. Laramie was special not because it was so different, but because it was so similar to so many other towns in America. ( And now that the play is being done all around the world, we get letters all the time from people saying, 'I live in a small town in the south of France, and my town is exactly like Laramie.' ) So, yes, we had to put up with the people's distrust of a New York theater company, and perhaps more damaging, the bruising caused by the media. These people had been interviewed enough. They had seen what came out of answering questions: how text can be taken out of context, how footage is just a point of departure for narratives that reporters want to construct. So it took us the best part of a year—we were in and out of Laramie for slightly over a year—to gain their trust and respect. .

Q: The material I read spoke to the 'crisis' provoked by the Shepard murder. How did Laramie residents feel?

A: In a town of 27,000 people, there's one degree of separation between people. Everyone knew either Matthew or one of the two perpetrators or someone who knew someone. So it was very, very impactful. I live in New York. If a person is murdered in the block next to mine, I don't ask: 'What did I do to cause this murder? What kind of community am I helping to create?' The people of Laramie were forced to ask that question. And that was why I wanted to be there when they responded to it.

Q: Why make a film version of The Laramie Project?

A: The play is amongst the most performed plays in America today. So it has reached a very wide audience. And yet, I felt television ( especially HBO ) would reach an even greater audience. When we did the play there was talk about making a feature film, but I didn't want to do that. By doing an HBO film, the material would find its way into the cultural bloodstream much more rapidly and efficiently.

Q: Going back to Laramie for the film, what issues did you deal with?

A: We had to make sure we correctly represented them. It's very easy to change people's meanings. We made a rule in our work. That when someone came to see their work, it wouldn't be enough that they said: 'This is what I said,' but they should also say 'This is what I meant.' That was our litmus test.

Q: How do you go from theater directing to film directing? Will you continue to split yourself between the theater and film with emphasis on the former?

A: I want to continue to do both. The directors I respect—Mike Nichols, Sam Mendez, Stephen Daldry—are all able to do both. There are a great deal of things to gain by doing both. The important thing is to treat each medium with awe. They are very different, and they do very different things. The question must always be: what can this medium contribute to the story? For Laramie, in the film we were able to show the beauty of the American west on the screen. We could have 64 actors play 64 roles. In the theater, we have the beauty of a small company of actors trying to understand a large community with their only tools: acting. So it's important to be keenly attuned to the medium in which you are working.

Q: How did the Shepard murder and its after effects represent a 'watershed historical moment'? What other works of yours have been based on such moments?

A: I am particularly interested in what I call watershed historical moments. These are moments when an event occurs and it brings to the surface all of our belief systems. My first play, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, was based on such an event, what many called the 'trial of the century.' When Oscar Wilde was tried for acts of 'gross indecency,' Victorian society was so shocked that they were forced to speak. The trial transcripts are a record of what they said. In reading those trials, I was able to see not only Oscar's story, but how the Victorians felt and spoke not only about ( homo ) sexuality, but about class, about education, about religion. The transcripts are a record of the belief system of an entire culture. I am fascinated by that.

The Laramie Project is a record of the belief system of our culture. When Matthew Shepard was murdered, the people of Laramie were so shocked that they tried to articulate their thoughts, feelings, and experience in words. Fortunately, we were there to record those words. And what we have now is a document not only about what the town of Laramie thought and felt, but perhaps about what our culture ( in America ) thinks and feels.

Q: Being gay and Latino, your work has focused on the former. Why?

A: I don't think that is true. I am Venezuelan, I am Jewish, I am gay, I live in New York. I am the sum of all my cultures. I couldn't write anything that didn't incorporate all that I am. I retract that. I could, but I wouldn't be a very good artist. I am not a gay writer. I am not a Latino writer. I am not a Jewish writer. I am a writer whose experience of the world has been tainted by all my experiences of it. Many people have seen Laramie as a work that explores the Latino culture. It has been said that Laramie is like so many small towns in Latin America. But I profoundly distrust those labels.

Q: What are the challenges and advantages about basing your works on real events?

A: Truth is more interesting than fiction.

Q: Why'd you decide to direct I am My Own Wife?

A: Because it's a beautiful play. Because the character is superbly interesting. Because Doug Wright is a dear friend.

Q: Did it move you personally?

A: As a Jewish man whose parents are European immigrants—my father came to Venezuela after the war, my mother was born there, but her parents immigrated before the war—the story of a transvestite who survives two of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century—the Nazis and the communists—was of obvious interest.

Q: What does the play have to say about Germans in the 20th century? What does it have to say to Americans today? And as for its universal appeal, how might heterosexuals relate to it?

A: Well, since it's run on Broadway for almost a year and garnered every major award, one must assume that it has a very broad appeal, unrelated to sexual orientation. That would be like asking if Othello holds any interest for white people. The play is about survival, about heroism, about what it means to compromise, and when is that not an option. In this sense, it's absolutely universal.

Q: If you were to write a play about being gay in Latin America, or a gay Latin American in the States, what would it look like?

A: All my plays are about that. Just the way they are about me being an artist living in the 21st century. And an American in wartime.

Q: What's up for you in 2005?

A: I'm in pre-production for a film, I'm about to direct Neil Labute's new play This Is How It Goes at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Then I'll be directing Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan, and in the fall, hopefully a new play of mine. I'm the hardest-working Jewish Latino gay artist living in New York.


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