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To Reality: An Interview with Moises Kaufman
Wilde at heart. "I’m the hardest-working Jewish Latino gay
artist in New York."
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, a gay student in small
town America, to the Tony Award-winning “I Am My Own Wife,” which he
directed, Venezuelan writer Moisés Kaufmann tackles universal subjects
through the prism of his own experience.
How was your theater company received when you visited Laramie?
Moises Kaufman: 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. It took that time to get them to open up to
The material I read spoke to the crisis provoked by the Shepard murder.
How did Laramie residents feel?
MK: 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
Why make a film version of The Laramie Project?
MK: 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.
Going back to Laramie for the film, what issues did you deal with?
MK: 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.
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
MK: I want to continue to do both. The directors I respect --
Mike Nichols, Sam Mendes, 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.
How did the Shepard murder and its after effects represent a watershed
historical moment? What other works of yours have been based on such
MK: 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 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.
Being gay and Latino, your work has focused on the former. Why?
MK: 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 Latino
culture. It has been said that Laramie is like so many small towns in
Latin America. But I profoundly distrust those labels.
What are the challenges and advantages to basing your works on real
events and people?
MK: Truth is more interesting than fiction.
Why’d you decide to direct I Am My Own Wife?
MK: Because it’s a beautiful play. Because the character is superbly
interesting. Because Doug Wright is a dear friend.
Did this story move you personally?
MK: 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.
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?
MK: 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.
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?
MK: 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.
What do you have planned for 2005?
MK: 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 in the summer, 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 in New York.
21 March 05
Born and raised in
Chicago, José Orozco works as a freelance reporter in Caracas where he
writes about social issues.
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