Timeless Balance of Dark and Light

By Mikkel Hyldebrandt

Photo: Theatrical Outfit

For their Fall season, Theatrical Outfit presents two groundbreaking classics – Our Town and The Laramie Project. Peach spoke to Associate Artistic Director about how both plays still resonate in today’s world.

Theatrical Outfit’s upcoming season presents some pretty groundbreaking American classics – will you tell us a little about them? 

Our Town and The Laramie Project, though 60 years apart in origin and 2000 miles apart in geography between Grover’s Corners, NH, and Laramie, Wyoming, both moved the needle theatrically when they debuted. Our Town, with its minimal scenery, no props, mimed actions, and a stage manager character who speaks directly to patrons, was immediate, no-frills, and sincere – unheard of in its era. The Laramie Project was the most recognized and lauded docudrama to date and came at a crossroads moment in our culture when the U.S. was talking extensively about sexuality, class, and hate. Matthew Shepard’s murder, for various reasons, not the least of which was that he was white, very petite, very young looking, wealthy, and lived for five days after his beating, became a lightning rod for public discourse on all sides.

“Our Town” originally premiered in the 1940s – how does the play hold up today? 

Tremendously well. The timelessness of Our Town lies in its universal and ageless themes of family, first and true love, community, grief, parenting, the natural cycle of life (and death), and so much more. The original setting may be early 20th century, but the situations, struggles, and triumphs of daily life are immensely current and relatable. I fully believe Our Town will be performed until humans are extinct. (Maybe even after!)

You are the director on “The Laramie Project” – what was it like going into this mastodon of a play?

I’ve adored the play from the start. I saw the original in NYC with my first significant boyfriend, and we sat in the theatre and wept after the curtain call. I loved the Actor’s Express production in 2001, and the HBO adaptation is very familiar and dear to me. Matt and I were born the same year, and we are strikingly similar in many ways – size, youthfulness, physical appearance, small-town/rural upbringing, interests, we both studied abroad, both very outgoing, etc. It isn’t lost on me that my life has been utterly blessed while his was cut tragically short before he got to truly make his mark in the world. Matt’s story and this play mean a lot to many people. Others have never heard of him or it. I approached the production and prepared for it like I do all my artistic endeavors – extensive research, many heartfelt conversations, countless reads of the script to think about/note specific elements and ideas each time through, a long and exhilarating casting process, storyboarding, inspiring meetings with designers, and more. My goal always is to walk into each first rehearsal – as a director or actor – prepared, confident, and passionate about the work at hand, so that I can then relax, have fun, and make great art with others who are bringing their own special gifts and preparation into the room.

Both plays have in each their own way found resonance in today’s America – what strikes you as the most prominent themes? 

Indeed! And both are two of the most produced plays in the world yearly. Still. In brief, I think they both speak eloquently to personal and communal responsibility – what it means to be human on an independent level, and what it means to be part of a larger community of humankind. We are all responsible for ourselves and how we engage with others – good and bad; kind and evil; compassionate and bigoted. Life is both a struggle and a joy. We’re in this together. It’s how we respond and move forward in life’s moments that often shifts the needle or bends the narrative toward progress.

Both plays are being presented in the same repertory – how do you see the plays connecting/cross-referencing with each other? 

Thematically, they both beautifully tackle what it means to be human (then and now) and to live alongside others both like and unlike oneself. Also, both plays are three acts in structure; both deal with the premature death of a young person on the cusp of adulthood; both use the convention of direct address narration; both feature churches, cemeteries, local authority figures, and oh so much more. And, of course, we showcase a cast of ten wonderful Atlanta actors creating approximately 75 characters over the two shows on the same set. That artistic feat alone is worth the trip downtown. Come see!

If you take the utopia of “Our Town,” and follow it with the harsh reality of “The Laramie Project,” what’s next? Dystopia? 

See, to me, the reality in The Laramie Project isn’t simply harsh or fatalistic. Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s hopeful. Sometimes it’s merciful. Sometimes it’s very humorous. Sometimes it’s sad, spiritual, infuriating, comforting. The play, to me, does a miraculous job of balancing dark and light with everything in between. It’s a mirror of life. Grey. Exquisitely grey. (My favorite color, in fact.)

Our Town will play August 27 – September 29, and The Laramie Project will run September 10 – September 29. Get more info and tickets at theatricaloutfit.org.

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