Friday, March 15, 2002

The Cyber Scene in San Francisco ~ The Laramie Project ~ by Lorraine Sanders

On Friday, March 15, I passed the entrance of San Francisco's historic Castro Theatre on my way to refuel with a quick cup of coffee before hitting the theatre's special, one-night only screening of HBO's acclaimed screen adaptation of the Laramie Project, a collaborative project developed in reaction to the beating and subsequent death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming in October, 1998. I knew the event was going to be a hit when I saw a substantial line of shivering hopefuls in place nearly an hour and a half before show time. After obtaining a much needed caffeine infusion, I hurried back to the theatre. There, I spoke with several of the myriad HBO staffers before getting admitted. They were all extremely pleasant despite a minor snafu with my name's appearance on the guest list. While many organizations get immediately snippy when such glitches present themselves just hours before a popular event, the staff was very helpful and ended up sending me in with a smile.

Just stepping into the theater was a treat unto itself. The ornate interior-- gilded moldings and roman influenced murals on the walls--and soft, orange lighting made me feel as if I'd stepped back into the Victorian era. Ascending the elegant staircase to the VIP reception on the second level, the swanky attendees coming and going made me immediately aware that I was, of course, in the midst of a cutting-edge crowd. When I stepped past the velvet ropes and into the reception area complete with an open bar and a guitar player resembling a young version of G.E. Smith, I nearly gasped. I had never, repeat never, seen so many well-tailored, simply gorgeous men's outfits in one place in my entire life. Maybe that's not saying much for the men I know, but standing in the middle of the room I felt like I might as well of been spying on a joint Armani Vidal Sassoon photo shoot. The women in attendance looked great too, don't get me wrong, but the array of well-coifed, magazine-perfect men littering the room was truly a site to behold. The crowd was also decidedly artsy looking, a sea of black lay before me, but not without some daring fashion moves in the mix. Where else could you spot a very distinguished looking man with a closely shaven white beard, black suit, and (surprise!) spacers in his ears? Or a shockingly tall woman swathed in what I took to be real (gasp!) mink paired with stilettos and ragged jeans. It was quite a feast for a hungry people-watcher as myself.

A feast also appeared on the seemingly ever-present hors d'oeuvres trays that were passed unobtrusively by the staff. Before ingesting one mini-burger or coconut crab croquette too many, I retreated to a quiet corner of the reception where I ran into freelance HBO photographer Melissa Dodd and Julie Miller, a filmmaker currently working on a documentary about performance artists in San Francisco. Blacktree Media and HBO staff energetically circulated throughout the room, chatting and commiserating with lots of big smiles and laughter. Notable attendees included Suzanne Baum of Blacktree Media; David Smith, communications director for the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), a major sponsor of the event; Sabrina Riddle and George Rosenfeld, both San Francisco leaders for the HRC; Dick Castro and Michael Sheen of HBO; Ross Katz of Good Machine productions, the executive producer for the Laramie Project; and Moises Kaufman, writer and director for both the Tectonic Theatre Company's stage version of the Laramie Project and the HBO adaptation; Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Steven Wangh, associate writers for the Laramie Project; and many guests and friends of guests from sponsor AT&T Broadband.

Ten minutes before the screening was to begin, I checked downstairs for a seat and found the lower level completely packed. Venturing to the balcony, I was pleased to find that the view was excellent even from the second level. The organist was pounding out a rousing version of "Ave Maria" and then continued with a lively finale that received a warm round of applause from the audience. After the music ended, HBO's David Castro appeared at a podium on the stage to welcome the audience and introduce the Laramie Project. After thanking sponsors AT&T Broadband and the Human Rights Coalition, Castro handed the spotlight to David Smith of the HRC. Smith then thanked many of the project's collaborators and spoke about the HRC's goals to bring the Laramie Project to screenings across the country.

"See, it isn't about this isolated incident. If anybody thinks that violence is behind us, it is not. It is a reality for many people in this country," Smith said as he addressed the now-hushed audience. "We need to get the country united to combat domestic terrorism with the same vigilance that happens abroad," he continued.

Smith then handed the mike to executive producer Ross Katz and writer/director Moises Kaufman. Kaufman, who stepped forward to a great deal of applause, just smiled and began to talk about his love for San Francisco.

"San Francisco has, for quite a while now, held a dear place in my heart. Other than New York, this feels like home," he said. After introducing those present that worked on the Tectonic Theatre Project's original incarnation of the Laramie Project, Kaufman left the stage and let the show begin.

Shot somewhat like a documentary, the film adaptation was honest, riveting and not even a bit sensationalist or overdone. The interviews with townspeople, though somewhat dramatized by the appearance of big name actors like Peter Fonda, Steve Buscemi, and Jeneane Garofalo, remained sharp and full of raw emotion. While tragedy is so often made into drama in media adaptations and television shows, the Laramie Project presented Matthew Shepard's death and the town he lived in with surprising authenticity. The film managed to present one very specific town's loss as a mirror for towns across the United States and, in doing so, opened Shepard's tragic death up to us all as impetus for change. When the credits rolled, most people stayed sunken in their seats. Though the Castro Theatre was packed with people, it was strangely silent among the aisles as audience members remained still, digesting all they'd just seen. After a few moments, I walked outside and felt oddly numb to the unseasonably cold air outside. I hope that the Laramie Project makes it to a town near you either on the screen or on the stage. This powerful adaptation of the play is currently running on HBO. Find more information about this project and the show times at