Ford’s ‘Laramie Project’ will go on — but maybe not at the famous theater

Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post - Actors hide behind a pipe and drape curtain during a rehearsal of "The Laramie Project” at the First Congregational United Church of Christ. The production was supposed to be at Ford’s Theatre, which is closed during the government shutdown.

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The people in line at 10th and G streets NW look happy, and why not? They’re queueing for free tickets to the Ford’s Theatre’s new production of “The Laramie Project.”

Two blocks down the street, the Ford’s building is closed, a victim of the government shutdown, which at 5:30 p.m. on this Friday is in its 90th hour. But at the beautiful and modern First Congregational United Church of Christ, a sunny story — although one with deep shadows — is unfolding about How the Show Goes On. Artists, faced with crisis, creating ingenious solutions! Free theater for the people!

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Paul R. Tetreault, Ford’s director, did not expect it to come to this. Ford’s Theatre, the scene of President Lincoln’s assassination, is a national historic site under the purview of the National Park Service. Ford’s Theatre Society is different: It’s the nonprofit group that has been producing and presenting shows on the historic stage since the building reopened in 1968 after decades of neglect.

That difference — and the fact that the theater kept operating during the 1995 shutdown — is why Tetreault expected it to stay open during the current congressional gridlock.

“They said that should work,” says Tetreault, sitting in a room upstairs in the church less than an hour before Friday’s performance. “There are no federal employees, no federal expenses. . . . We are just a pawn caught in the game. And we have to figure out what we do next.”

Tetreault is anxious about those next steps. Until “Laramie” can get back onto the stage at Ford’s, it’s costing his troupe $100,000 a week.

Acts of Congress

Tetreault won’t put a figure on what the “Laramie” production cost, but it’s essentially already paid for — designed, built and rehearsed. What’s missing is the income stream. The company projected $400,000 in ticket sales for the run, which is scheduled through Oct. 27. Ford’s can’t recoup through insurance, because unlike acts of God, acts of Congress aren’t covered.

Ford’s officials thought they would be able to use their 655-seat theater throughout the hopefully brief shutdown. Only Tuesday morning did Tetreault learn that the company would have to bug out.

Tuesday night was supposed to be the media opening for the critically acclaimed show, a docudrama about the beating death of a young gay man in Laramie, Wyo., 15 years ago. “Laramie” is a popular title that somehow is only now getting its professional premiere in the District. The cast features top-flight Washington actors — Holly Twyford, Mitchell Hebert and others. Scrambling, the company members hustled themselves — actors and technicians, but not the show’s large set — and a mere 80 members of their audience to the rehearsal hall at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

That was a one-night-only Band-Aid. Performances were canceled Wednesday and Thursday. Peformances for the entire week have been rescheduled or tickets refunded. There won’t be another performance until Tuesday, again inside this church. After that, who knows?

“Until I get a sign that that $400,000 is never going to materialize — that the federal government is never going to open — then I might have to start dealing with the expenses,” Tetreault says. “But I don’t believe that’s the case yet.”

“I get what it takes to run a theater,” says “Laramie” director Matthew Gardiner, who is also the associate artistic director of Signature Theatre. “These are union technicians, working in a church,” Gardiner says. “Union wardrobe people. All the light people, the sound people. It’s not cheap. But Paul’s not going to not pay people. And I think the play is too important to him.”

A cause

“The Laramie Project” is never just a play; it is, inevitably, a cause. The interview-based piece was created by writer-director Moises Kaufman and the members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, who went to Laramie after 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence and beaten, eventually dying of his injuries. The incident inspired vigils across the country, and in 2009, Congress passed a hate-crime bill bearing Shepard’s name, alongside that of James Byrd Jr., the black man dragged to death by white supremacists in Texas, also in 1998.

Under the umbrella of its Lincoln Legacy initiative, Ford’s has created a lot of programming around “Laramie”: an interview with Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, last Monday night with ABC and NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts; an exhibit of letters sent to Judy Shepard from around the world; panel discussions; and a candlelight vigil this Friday, marking the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s murder, which is Saturday.

“We have been working our tails off, everyone in the entire organization, for over a year,” Tetreault says, explaining the urgency of keeping the show in view by hook or by crook. “It is going to be over on October 27.”

Marching the “Laramie” cast to Woolly sounds a little like the historic night in 1937 when Orson Welles paraded his Federal Theatre Project actors to an empty theater in New York. (The Feds, convinced that Welles’s troupe was infested with commies, were trying to shut down the protest musical “The Cradle Will Rock.”)

“It felt like we were toe-to-toe with the audience,” actress Kimberly Schraf says. “Just right there, with blinding, makeshift lights.”

The actors, who all play multiple parts in this chronicle of a small Western town hit by tragedy and a national media spotlight, are sitting in a semicircle upstairs at the church less than an hour before the Friday show starts, rehashing the topsy-turvy week.

“That was new to me,” Schraf says, “a show being pulled out from underneath you.”

“I’m [ticked] off that we’re kicked out of the theater,” Hebert says. “I won’t equivocate. Especially when you see other things going on, like Air Force-Navy football games. You’re like, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t get it.’ ”

Deciding to find a stage somewhere anyway — does it make a difference that the show is “Laramie”?

“To me it does,” Twyford says. “A lot. Sadly, 15 years later, it’s still a very relevant story.”

That comes up repeatedly, up and down the Ford’s team. They cite last week’s incident of anti-gay heckling during a University of Mississippi production of “Laramie” and a new book aimed at debunking the Shepard incident as a hate crime.

“I assumed everyone knows the story,” says actor Craig Wallace. “Along with our design partners, who are not represented here, we’ve put together a story worth hearing. Because of that, wherever we take it, we’re ready to go. We’re definitely ready to go.”

“Laramie,” full of interviews and monologues, is more portable than most shows. The whole cast laughs when Hebert says, “You could just drop us like cats, just shove a box out and eight of us come tumbling out.”

But the actors miss the design now sitting on the darkened stage at Ford’s. It would take days to load the set and tech the lights in another theater, even if one were available for the bulk of this month. And while Tetreault is grateful for the offers from venues around town, he’s skittish about moving into a polished theater. Audiences would expect a full production.

Thus, for two nights at least (and for a nominal rental fee), the First Congregational United Church of Christ. Will audiences follow as the actors soldier on?

“There’s a line down the block,” Twyford notes.

“I have a feeling,” actor Chris Stezin says, “if people are waiting in line on the street, It’s going to be a fun night.”

A half-hour later, the cast strides up the center aisle of the sanctuary and begins the show. It’s a full house, about 250 people, seats filled downstairs and in the balcony. At least 90 people were turned away, given passes or coupons for later dates.

At Woolly, Gardiner says, the performance was pretty quiet — small room, odd half-and-half blend of media and high-school teachers scoping out the show for their students. On Friday, though, it’s lively. The audience laughs freely, applauds with delight at some of the performers’ colorful turns, gasps at the stark medical reports, listens in rapt silence when Paul Scanlan, as Shepard assailant Aaron McKinney, takes the stage. The standing ovation at the end is hearty, not rote. Nice night, indeed.

But as a habit, it’s a back-breaker.

“We are not going to make money until we get back into Ford’s,” Tetreault says.

And if shutdowns are the new normal, with Ford’s again caught in the gears? Tetreault says he has reached out to his colleague at the National Park Service. He’s thinking about putting protective language into Ford’s Theatre Society’s operating agreement.

“When this is all over, I want to go out for a long drink and figure out how we avoid this again,” he says. “That’s what we need to work on.”

Pressley is a freelance writer.

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