None of us had an easy time being in the play The Laramie Project, but I think Jay got stuck with the worst of it. Yes, Caleb had to play one of the guys who beat Matthew Shepherd to death and Paige had to play a homophobic old lady as one of her parts, but Jay had to be Fred Phelps in one scene. He had to be the guy who founded the Westboro Baptist Church. That’s pretty messed up.
“I can’t even practice my lines,” Jay tells me one night as we walk back to our dorm after rehearsal. “I was working on it the other night in my room, some of the ad lib stuff, and my roommate came and told me to knock it off because people in the kitchen were talking about the crazy dude on the first floor who was yelling homophobic shit.”
“You should put a sign up on your door or something,” I say. “‘Don’t mind me, I’m just acting.’”
“Seriously,” Jay says, laughing. “I spent thirty minutes yesterday memorizing anti-gay Bible verses.”
“Leviticus, right?” I say, remembering from back when I went to a Baptist church. “I think I heard you use it tonight. Right before you told me I was going to hell.”
“Yeah,” Jay says. “That got pretty intense.”
The liberal arts college in central Arkansas that we attend has the most beautiful campus I’ve ever seen. It’s not like the University of Arkansas with it’s giant stone buildings, but it’s still gorgeous. There are trees everywhere and brick pathways and at night the lights point up into the branches, giving everything an ethereal sort of glow. It’s February and it’s cold so we walk across campus quickly, avoiding the pecan court which while pretty, is impossible to walk through without getting pecan shells in your shoes. It’s supposed to snow later this week, but we’re skeptical. All Arkansas ever gets is ice.
“It actually bothered me more than I thought,” I say. “The ‘you’re going to hell’ thing.”
“I noticed you were having trouble staying in character,” Jay says. “I thought maybe I was just making a weird face or something.”
“No, it was me,” I say. “I was having a moment.”
We get to the dorm and I head towards the stairs, expecting Jay to walk down the hall to his room, but he doesn’t. He follows me.
“You okay?” Jay asks. “I mean, I’m having a hard time yelling abuse at you, so it can’t be easy for you to take it.”
“I think I’m okay?” I say, because really, I’m not sure. I didn’t think I’d be so upset by it, but I hadn’t really expected it to happen either. The script doesn’t say for him to look at me when he says it, but it makes sense within the scheme of things. Romaine Patterson, me, is going up against him, so of course he’d yell directly at her. Me.
“Actually,” I say, trying to frame this question in the least awkward way possible, “could I have a hug? This whole thing is just making me—”
Jay doesn’t wait for me to finish. He gives me a hug and it’s not awkward at all, even though I was sure it would be. He pulls away and pats me on the shoulder, smiling. “See you at rehearsal tomorrow.”
* * *
I didn’t expect to get a role in the play. Thirty people had showed up for nine roles on the first night of auditions, the only night I could attend, and I was a freshmen. That didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in being in the show. I really wanted to be in the show. Before I read the script in preparation for the audition, I’d never heard of Laramie, Wyoming. I didn’t know that in 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten nearly to death by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson or that he died six days later without ever waking up again. I didn’t know that the Westboro Baptist Church protested at his funeral and later at McKinney and Henderson’s trial and I’d never heard of Fred Phelps who founded the church and spewed hatred wherever he went. I especially didn’t know that this play I had heard mentioned so many times by my theater friends was a collection of interviews compiled by the Tectonic Theater Project who were brave enough, or perhaps crazy enough, to go to Laramie themselves and ask questions, then produce a play about it. It’s a tragic, incredibly important story and I desperately wanted to be a part of it. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
In my mind, this was a no pressure audition. I decided not to worry about how good or bad I did, volunteering to read first which is something I wouldn’t normally do. My general strategy at open auditions is to watch some other people read to get ideas, but that’s not what I was going to do this time. This time, I’d provide the ideas.
Robbie, our guest director from Atlanta, gives me and other girls who look like me (thin, petite, ordinary) two monologues. The first is Romaine Patterson’s monologue in which she describes taking on the Westboro Baptist Church with giant angel wings. I believe that I have some slight advantage in this over the other girls because, while I am not a lesbian, my hair is short. Stereotypical? Of course, but this is theater. Stereotypes are important.
The second monologue is more difficult in a couple of ways. The first is that it’s the college student who found Matthew Shepard describing finding him, all beat up and looking dead. The emotional ante on that is crazy high, way higher than a bit of activism, even considering that Romaine was Matthew’s best friend. The second thing, the even more difficult thing, is that the college student who found Matthew is named Aaron.
Now, I’m not stupid. I know that A-a-r-o-n is the boy’s spelling, but I have the benefit of reading first. I don’t ask Robbie for clarification because I know what the answer will be and I’m not gutsy enough to try and do a male voice when I am so very not male. I’ve got pretty decent boobs and a small waist, not to mention a very ‘delicate’ face with a soft jaw. The chances of me being able to pull off playing a dude are non-existent, so I don’t even try. I read the entire thing in my regular, girly voice, and Robbie doesn’t stop me so I figure he’s just letting me read for the hell of it. I am a freshmen, after all. Getting in to this show is a long shot.
I don’t hold back on my performance, though. Aaron is finding someone who’s almost dead and that’s not something you can just read, so I try to feel it. At the end I’m heaving a little and my eyes are burning and I have to take a minute to slow myself down before looking at Robbie. He’s smiling at me, a glare on his glasses, looking far too pleased for me having blatantly misread the role as ‘female.’
“Here’s the thing,” Robbie says, leaning forward in the theater seat he can barely fit into. “This character is played by a woman, but it’s actually a guy.”
“Oh,” I say, looking down at the script as if I’ve just now noticed the name. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Robbie says, smiling even bigger. “I want you to read it again, with your voice a little deeper, but I want you to do it with that same honesty and emotion you did just now.”
The same honesty and emotion you did just now. Yes, I was the first to read and yes, there was going to be another night of auditions, but that’s not a compliment to be taken lightly. Three days later when the cast list is up and I see my name, I’m not even all that surprised. I’m ready to get started.
* * *
In class on Friday, the night after we open, my religion professor asks me about playing Aaron. Dr. Cassidy represents the best of liberal arts, I think, someone who designed an entire class about the religious experience one can have by listening to music or going to a rave but who manages to wrap it in such academic terms that it becomes boring. He believes in the power of empathy and how it relates to spiritual experience, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s fascinated by acting. It’s a natural extension of everything he believes in.
“You know, there was a moment there, in your speech,” Dr. Cassidy says, speaking quietly for no other reason than that’s how he always speaks, “when it almost sounded like tears. Were you really feeling that, in that moment? Those tears?”
I think back over my speech, trying to remember when I would have sounded choked up. There isn’t much I think of when I do it, standing center stage, having done it so many times now that it’s mechanical. Having a full house didn’t really change what I’d learned to do in rehearsal. Say a few sentences, allow my right arm to start shaking just a tad, keep going until the end of it when my arm has a full-blown tremor and don’t stop shaking until the lights go down after two more characters finish their own monologues. The only difference the crowd made is that I could feel how quiet it was and if I looked closely enough, I could see people crying. It wasn’t even the most difficult part of the play and people were crying. I think some of them didn’t stop until after the show ended.
“I don’t remember being choked up, but I don’t remember trying to sound choked up either, so maybe it was both?” I say, aware of the other students around me who’ve gotten to class early, afraid of saying something too ‘woo-woo’ to be considered normal, which is silly because this is a class that is trying to discuss how mosh pits can be spiritually transformative. “In rehearsal, I actually tried to live it, but then after learning how that sounded, I just copied it instead of having to go through the emotion every time. If that makes sense.”
I don’t know if Dr. Cassidy really understands what I’m saying, but he seems happy enough with my answer, turning to question another student about their thoughts on our reading for last night.
Everyone always wanted to know about Aaron, which I guess I understand. His pain was the most dynamic that I portrayed, the way it tore at him visibly in my decision to have my right arm shaking every time Aaron steps on stage after that first time, right up until he reconciles what he saw. But Aaron was simple. Aaron was straightforward, uncomplicated, easy to understand because his pain was so completely removed from me and anything I’ve ever experienced. It was Romaine that I couldn’t seem to separate myself from, not when Jay/Fred Phelps looked at me/her and yelled about hell and sin. But no one ever asked about Romaine.
Maybe that’s a good thing. If they had asked, I wouldn’t have been able to explain.
* * *
I enter from stage right with Trevor, a football player in his first show ever, and Jay. On our last performance they are the only two that I tell about how I’ve decided to transfer schools, fifteen minutes before curtain, folksy music playing while the audience gets seated.
“It’s for a lot of complicated reasons that I don’t want to get into right now,” I say, even though the truth is really just that I’m miserable at a college smaller than my high school, where the major requirements are so vague I don’t even know what I want to do anymore. “I just wanted to say thank you guys, for this. It’s been a really great last show here.”
“Seriously?” Jay says, laughing. “You can’t just spring this on us right before we go on.”
“That’s some depressing shit,” Trevor says. “I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’m gonna miss you guys, too.”
Then the music fades and the audience goes quiet and so do we, getting ready to portray dozens of different people with just the nine of us. We walk on and we get in places, and I give my last performance of all of my characters, of Aaron, and of Romaine. I didn’t know it then but so far, it’s been my last performance ever.
I’d like to say that I had an epiphany before the show ended, that I put the pieces together about why Romaine and Fred Phelps shook me up so bad, but I didn’t. It was months before I came out as bisexual, and it really wasn’t dramatic. I told my then-boyfriend and his friends, then we turned on Miss America just in time for the swimsuit portion.
If I’d come out during Laramie, though. Right before we opened, maybe, or at the end of a particularly trying rehearsal, with a gay director and a cast of people who I felt like I knew so well, even though I really didn’t. It would have been over the top. It would have been something we discussed in talk-backs after the show, something that came up when people asked me about performing so many different characters. It would have been a moment.
But I didn’t figure it out in time. I didn’t have it put together when I came out, either. It took another year before I understood how it all fit together. So as much fun as it is to think about what it would have been if I’d come out then, amid all of that fanfare of doing such a dramatic, gay-centric play, it’s kind of silly. Coming out then doesn’t even make sense. I wasn’t ready.
* * *
The night before we opened The Laramie Project it snowed. The campus was quiet and while the snow had stopped falling by the time we finished rehearsal, a full inch was covering every brick pathway and every tree branch, entirely undisturbed. Trevor, who’s hardest role was a homophobic preacher who prays that Matthew Shepard repented of his gayness before dying, ran out with no jacket on and started a snowball fight.
It wasn’t a long fight because none of us had gloves or real coats and we were exhausted but we managed to get ourselves soaked anyways with snow in our hair and our fingers turning bright red, half of us ending up on the ground because snow on brick is slippery. Amber, who came in everyday and brushed her teeth to cover up the smell of cigarettes, was laughing and I’d barely even seen her smile and Caleb’s glasses were crooked on his face. I was shivering because Jay grabbed me and dropped snow down the back of my coat and ran away before I could grab him. Ethan, normally so put together and serious, was on his back in the snow, his red scarf furled out next to him.
We had a lot of deep talks with our director Robbie when we first started rehearsing about what it was like to remember when this happened to Matthew Shepard, because while most of us were alive for it, the oldest of us were only five. Robbie talked about how being gay still wasn’t accepted in 1998 and how important everything was that we were doing. We listened, of course, and we nodded, but we were a room full of privileged, straight college students who existed within an airtight bubble of liberalism on a picturesque campus. We didn’t get it. We couldn’t.
But I think we did get something, maybe, when we bowed at our final dress rehearsal that night and saw one of our professor’s sobbing, saw Robbie wiping away tears while the techies and the costumers gave us a standing ovation. When we went outside after taking off our make-up in silence and looking around at each other more serious than we’ve ever been before. When Trevor ran out and started throwing around snow that wasn’t even the right texture for snow balls. When we spent a few minutes laughing and yelling and disturbing the quiet of Wednesday night on a college campus, disrupting all of that perfect snow. When we stopped and stood for a minute, when maybe we were all thinking the same thing, looking up and getting a glimpse at what Matthew Shepard must have seen when he was laying on the ground dying. Lights. Stars. Expansive sky.
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