Dr. Shelley Liebembuk, a UFV Assistant Professor of Theatre, dives into her upcoming project on the latest CHASIcast. Premiering Thursday, March 23, The Laramie Project is constructed from the transcripts of over 200 interviews, conducted in the aftermath of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998.
Dr. Liebembuk explains how the intimate setting of theatre can uniquely speak to an audience, how she worked with her cast to handle such challenging material, and the applicability of the play’s themes to our local community in 2023.
More information on the play, including showtimes and tickets, is available at ufv.ca/plays/the-laramie-project
Hosted by CHASI’s director Dr. Martha Dow and recorded in CIVL Radio’s studio at the University of the Fraser Valley, the CHASIcast is available to stream below, or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, and other platforms!
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Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: My hope is that when you sit with someone — literally, physically, have to sit with somebody else and someone else’s ideas for a while, in a space that asks you to listen — I think that can be really transformative. And I think part of that is the wonder and the courage of an audience member to arrive, and the courage of a performer to be vulnerable, to tell the story, to use their body as a conduit for that conversation.
Intro: Based out of the University of the Fraser Valley on unceded, traditional lands of the Stó:lō people, we are the Community Health and Social Innovation Hub, or CHASI for short. We support the social, mental, emotional, physical, and economic health of those living in our communities by bringing together experts from across disciplines. Those experts have some incredible stories and insights. To share those with the communities. We bring you the CHASIcast, a monthly program where we drill down on a current topic and chat about how it impacts our lives.
Dr. Martha Dow: I am thrilled to be here today for another version of the CHASIcast, and today I’m with Dr. Shelley Liebenbuk from the theatre department, and super excited to talk to you a bit about your journey to UFV and certainly The Laramie Project, which as you know, is how we met, as I saw that poster and was so excited. So welcome Shelley, and we’d love just to hear you talk a bit about, you know, your journey to UFV.
Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: Perfect. Thank you Martha. It’s great to be here. It’s super exciting to get to talk about The Laramie Project that opens this week and also kind of broadly about arriving here at UFV and seeing how we can amplify what the theatre program does for the community here. So it’s a really great opportunity. Thank you.
Generally I came out to UFV four years ago now. Had never been really in Abbotsford before, so it was very new, and I was coming from teaching in Mount Allison University, which is in New Brunswick. And before that I did my doctorate and my postdoc in Toronto in theatre and performance studies.
And my background is as an actor. I trained in New York at the Atlantic theatre Company Conservatory. And worked in acting for a while and didn’t find like it was meeting all of the things I wanted to be doing. So I was really excited to go back and study theatre and performance studies and think about it and put all that together and I’m really excited to be here cause I feel like as an educator at UFV, I get to draw on all of those things.
From my love of acting and working with student actors here, and also thinking about how theatre functions to build community and to think critically about work. And also again, teaching theatre and performance studies in a way that recognizes that it is both a practice and includes criticality and includes theory and is really a creative engagement with thinking across a lot of different topics, and thematics, and methodologies.
Dr. Martha Dow: Wonderful. And I wonder, I know this is a natural sort of segue into The Laramie Project, but can you talk a little bit about the importance of theatre in these times?
Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think, you know, especially coming out of Covid or kind of in whatever we are in now you know, for me, when theatres closed and we couldn’t gather in, in any way, honestly, you couldn’t even gather at a friend’s house.
The value of coming into a space and sharing the same space and time with someone in real time and getting to experience something together and be part of something, both as a performer in an ensemble, but also as an audience. It became even more clear than ever that that is so important to me.
And so as soon as even during the, the pandemic, I should say, I did direct a show here via Zoom, so I made a Zoom play of Antigone which was still, again, I think the idea was to still allow the space for us to be thinking and be using art to respond and reflect on our current times. To me, that’s always very important. I’m not the first by any means who thinks that way, but I think art really is a, is a wonderful way to refract our lived experience and allow for different entry points to how we, you know, how, how are we supposed to do what we do and how are we supposed to hopefully figure out better ways of, of doing and being with each other.
So again, I think doing a Zoom play was still the attempt to keep making theatre and I think being able to come back to working in a live medium with the students here has been amazing. And I think, again, it’s so important because my hope is that when you sit with someone, literally physically have to sit with somebody else and someone else’s ideas for a while in a space that asks you to listen.
I think that can be really transformative. And I think, again, part of that is the wonder and the courage of an audience member to arrive and the courage of a performer to be vulnerable, to tell the story, to use their body as a conduit for that conversation. And again, so I think the potential is enormous to really say we’re gathering here and you’re asked to just come and listen and reflect.
And that again, that’s, for me, theatre can offer various pushes back against the idea of also just consumption. Right? Art as consumption. It is both entertainment I believe very much in what Bertolt Brecht said, which was we can’t teach anything if we’re not also entertaining . And I, so I think it’s really important for political theatre, theatre that has a social activist perspective, which I hope my, the work I’m doing always does. It’s that question of how do we engage, you know, civic engagement, social engagement. We need to also, of course, amuse our audience. Allow all of us to feel welcome, to feel invited. But then also, you know, find those spaces where then we can poke back a bit.
And I, and I at least always find that in the theatre, we’re kind of together in that space. So it hopefully can create that space where we can actually have that conversation, I guess for, for lack of a better word.
Dr. Martha Dow: When I saw the poster, we didn’t know each other. And I saw the poster with your name on it, which prompted me to reach out. I was honestly filled in the same moment with a deep sadness that it’s so relevant in 2023. And and great excitement because of the vehicle I know The Laramie Project to be. So, can you talk a little bit about your choice?
Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: Yes, yes. Thank you. You know, again, originally was prompted by this idea, you know, we have at the theatre program, we’re always kind of asked to plan the next season, and I was excited to direct and the prompt was actually looking at something canonical.
You know, we often have these requirements as, as a small program. And again, going back and realizing The Laramie Project, yes, it’s canonical, it’s 23 years ago that this verbatim piece took North America by storm. Again, it’s a piece that is a verbatim set of interviews of a community responding right after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, who was a young gay man.
And it also obviously was so topical because as we know, as you know, this state of how the LGBTQ+ community is being treated and thought about in the mainstream is, you know, there’s so many hateful perspectives that are claiming to be virtuous and moralizing their perspective.
And so again, I think yeah, we’re in a, in a time, in a moment where it’s heinous. And I think having been here for four years, I think the recognition that also here in Abbotsford and, and you know, working to serve the UFV community there’s a lot of… religious conservative beliefs that don’t recognize how intolerant they are, how, how much hate filled content their exclusions are, harboring, I guess, for lack of a better word.
So, for me, again, a, a big part of this piece is, is twofold. One is to make the space to have this conversation with students, to bring in and support and make visible students who are in the LGBTQ+ community allies to that community, but also to hopefully, you know, do that really heavy lifting of making people realize that just because you’re not aware of your intolerance, doesn’t mean you’re not actively doing violence all the time.
And I think to me that’s what this play captures so meaningfully is how violent inaction can be and how violent our assumption that our perspective is is not cruel it’s “live and let live” or it’s “just not how I see things.” You know, how, how, how dangerous that is. And I think, again, the play has a, has a way in the, in the fact that the play is actually allowing us to hear all of these voices and kind of have to sit there and sift through all of these voices.
The hateful ones, the ones that are negotiating their position, the ones that are shocked at the violence and so on. And actually force ourselves, I think actually to realize. Our own accountability and how proximally some of the voices that maybe we would prefer not to recognize as as proximal are. And, and, and in, in taking it up again in taking it up here, I was still very surprised in the fall when I was trying to gather, you know, students toward the show, how many conversations I had with folks who were not comfortable with working on this piece.
And I think to me, each of those conversations, first of all was a practice in figuring out how to truly make space to have a conversation with someone who has a different perspective toward hopefully moving toward a more joint, you know, humane perspective realizes that, again, some of these questions of not agreeing with a lifestyle are active intolerance and violence.
But also, again, it really, with each of those conversations made it so clear how significant this piece is. Generally in this now, but really also very specifically locally here. These conversations do not seem to be taking place. There seems to be an assumption that, yeah, this is some minority that we can kick to the side. We don’t have to think about it without realizing again that the core I think of being a humanitarian, of working at a liberal arts institution of trying to believe and believing in social justice is that every person is a human. And if we don’t do that work to recognize what our innate prejudices are then we’re failing.
Dr. Martha Dow: It’s interesting. As you’re as you’re speaking, I think that, you know, “love the sinner, hate the sin” has given so much permission, continues to do and has forever, certainly in, in my life. And I think this space that we teach in this community, there’s challenges for that. And we see it when our students, you know, bring forward their own navigation of these issues. So I think it’s so profoundly important, and I think we sort of provide greater space around sexuality because this, I wonder this separation of identity and behavior, and you see that in the play, you know, this discussion about Matthew, but you know, the gay rage thing or the behavior or did, you know, and you see that with various characters that are in, people that are reflected in the play. So I wonder how you navigated a bit of that.
Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: Yeah, that’s such a great question. You know, I think like, just to give you an example, for instance, in rehearsal, I’m so lucky, I’m working with an 11 person cast here of fantastic students who’ve just so willingly jumped onto this project and, you know, we’d be working on a piece and suddenly, or on a scene or a moment, they’re called moments in tectonic theatre company’s work.
You know, I’d kind of be working to redirect it and I’d say, okay, but look, look how, look at what these words are saying. You know, a big question I asked all the actors to think about as they worked on the text was what is said and what is unsaid. Also in the context of interviews as we’re doing now, right?
How do you formulate toward a public something you’re saying, so what is kind of in, in all language, obviously, what is the subtext is important, especially as actors, but also kind of what are we reframing from saying, or what are we trying to kind of manipulate or clean up or you know, and kind of finding all that ambiguity and all the complexity and all the grittiness under these materials.
And I think we continued in rehearsal to kind of be taken aback by how, for instance, something could be said for a moment and even as onlookers, even as a space where we’re trying to think about the ethics of this piece, and sometimes we’re like, yeah, okay, yeah, go back to that line and the line is heinous, and you just kind of go like, yeah, the line where this gets said. And then in other moments it was so proximal that we, and, and raw that we couldn’t, we, that part of the navigation and rehearsal was even just saying, okay, we need to take some time and we maybe, you know, we need to figure out how we can perform this and how we can do that safely and how we can actually embody this, how we can actually put those words in your mouth or, put this character on, or even we had at the beginning, you know, I offered some of the actors like the opportunity at the end of an embodiment to just literally shake off that character.
And I think that process and the processing of that even, you know, for instance, like there’s one character Marge Murray, and again, it’s a real person. Who you know, has such, she’s, she, she has a, you know, there’s some very humorous moments. She’s a very motherly caring figure. I think there are moments where I really love this character.
And then there’s some things that this character says that the cognitive dissonance of hearing that is so stark. And also at the same time, I think that ambiguity of, oh, right, how, what are all these things that people hold and can kind of use at the same time. And that we just kind go, yeah, okay, but that’s just Bob. Or you know, that’s just my mom. And sometimes, and it’s and I think kind of, yeah, getting to know these characters in rehearsal and, and the murkiness of that has been really fascinating.
And I think as well, obviously how, how we take that into, everything else that we do and, and every other way that we present and, and perform as we just move through life, right? What are the things, what are the ways that we allow certain things in certain scenarios, cause we figure that that’s somehow just the easier path through. And, and I think, again, I’ve been, I feel very lucky that a lot of the folks I’ve been working with have been also willing to share that navigation in their own lives. And the process of learning and unlearning a lot of things.
Dr. Martha Dow: Can you, maybe I should have done this homework. But “moments” like, I think it just is so fitting because that’s how it feels as we navigate these spaces in life. And that, that the theatre group calls them moments. Can you educate me a bit about, is that something they only do, or what is that?
Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: I’d love to. So, yeah. So Tectonic theatre company kind of coins this idea for their process, which is called like “moments.” So the idea is as they’re devising work or as they’re creating work, rather than thinking about it in a more kind of traditional textual way, like saying, okay, this is the first act, which is, you know, building up to this big climactic position and so on.
They’re instead kind of formulating work around kind of moments that have specific titles and the title can be for instance, some of the, the moments are, you know, a journal entry in The Laramie Project, but some are more conceptual, like Magnitude or Hope, or Snow. So it’s this, this ideas of what is kind of the, the overall image or the the driving kind of concept behind something and how do you put it together and it will include different actions. It might include different character snippets, but what’s nice, so it doesn’t follow a singular dramatic action, but rather the, the beat and the temporality is dictated by, as, as you say, by this idea of like, what’s the thing you’re capturing? What are you trying to hold here? Or what are you trying to articulate through?
I think what. Like about it for, for specifically for Laramie Project is how it allows us to think of a specific thing across different perspectives. Broadly, again, in devising. I think other companies I’ve worked with also use moment work when they’re doing collective devising processes. And for instance, when I worked with Blue Mount Inc as a intern dramaturge, what they do is they create material. They write, let’s say like the little things that are being created are each written on an index card and put on a wall, and then the index cards are kind of reorganized under moment brackets. So we can think a moment could be welcome at the beginning of a show and you can think, okay, what are the different ways we can welcome an audience?
And what’s nice again, what I like about the idea of a moment, it can incorporate contradictions and variety. And yeah, and, and going back to Tectonic Theatre Company, and specifically with The Laramie Project, I think what it really allows them to do is to carry us through the very real events and, and the, you know, post-event interviews with real people and, and allow the logic to, again, both follow chronological time, but actually also break chronological time and follow.
Thematics and different key concepts of how, as, as you’re saying, Martha, how we actually try to negotiate these things or, or navigate these things in our actual life.
Dr. Martha Dow: One of the things, this is so interesting and could, could sit here and listen to you describe your practice forever, to be honest. It’s so inspiring. I wonder sometimes in these situations that the people that come are the people that, you know, are always in the room on the issues. Can you talk a little bit about that? You know, specifically around Laramie, but about theatre and who’s drawn? You talked about audience earlier.
Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: Yeah, that’s such a great question. Right. I think that’s always the challenge of thinking, how do we draw in folks who, who might be a kind of an unsuspecting audience member. I often think about it also aesthetically in the sense of you know, maybe you’re looking for something that’s conventional and here at this moment I’m gonna disrupt that convention.
But it’s a, it is, it’s a very, you know, it’s, it’s kind of walking a tightrope because I think, especially again now that many people, and again, where we are specifically that where many people are not familiar with, with live theatre, the stakes seem really high. As I said before, the wonder of being in a room, having to listen and stay and be there for a certain amount of time is is a kind of contract, but it does feel like a big ask at a time when there are a lot of other things that we can engage with at what feel like more levels of personal control, right? I can watch things on my phone and I can turn it off if I don’t like it and so on, and I can switch to something else.
And, and so this idea, especially with live theatre, that we know that it kind. Obviously, you know, in our case, it’s always the same play. It’s a, the play is published, you can read it. We’re doing a performance of that play. We haven’t improvised these things, but the fact is that when you join us for one of these evenings, it is its own event, and the who is in that room affects the performance as well.
If the audience is. Has come in thinking, oh, this is very heavy material. Then that’s gonna feel a certain way versus an audience that maybe is willing to, to laugh with us in the moments that we’ve created to laugh. I think for myself, my hope is always that people will be willing to take the risks and I, for me, it’s also important as an artist generally also to, to really, again, I mentioned welcome.
I think for me, It’s very important to be generous to the audience. Just as I think of the way I set the space for the acting ensemble to come in and do the work, I think I, I want there to be space for people to come in to feel like they can take their time to navigate how they wanna interact with us in this show.
But I hope that they can also trust that part of the willingness to be there and the being there means that you will be challenged. And I think again in, you know, within the Western Convention at the moment, which is that you sit in a darkened theatre. I think that’s also fascinating. I don’t think it has to be that way.
I actually don’t think necessarily that’s the most comfortable way to be an audience, but I think it, it is supposed to gift us some sort of anonymity, some sort of quiet, reflective space to respond to things and feel not called upon, even as we are very much called upon to be kind of participating in, in what’s happening.
Broadly I, you know, I continue to hope that whoever comes to the theatre, even if they already agree, and this is true for anything with Laramie Project’s values and where it’s hoping to go, but broadly, that again, for me, what’s wonderful is I think art can show us a different way to do the work.
And I, again, I really, you know, I, I hope that even if you know, it isn’t someone sitting there and giving you a sermon about, something, I mean, it can be, there are performances like that, but for instance, with Laramie Project, it really isn’t. And I think it’s really trying to figure out how do we sit with this from wherever our starting point is, or even if we think we already know what we think, what happens when I watch this and how does this connect to me today?
Even again with Laramie Project, you know, this is a specific piece of of history, which we’re amplifying and shifting because the performers are here and now and, and this is happening here and now through their bodies this week.
Dr. Martha Dow: Thank you. Yeah, so maybe you can remind everybody about the dates and the important information.
Dr. Shelley Liebembuk: Yes. Thank you. So the show opens this Thursday, March 23rd in D building room 105, and it runs Thursday, Friday evenings and Saturday matinee. From this Thursday through to Saturday, April 1st. This first Saturday, we also have a post-show talk back facilitated by the UFV Pride Collective. And I really welcome folks to come out.
We have an Eventbrite link that you can check. So if you go to Eventbrite and look up UFV Laramie project, you’ll find us. And again, it’s six shows and we really hope that you’ll come out and check it out.
Dr. Martha Dow: Wonderful. And I wanna thank you. Going back to one of the things you’ve said, I’ve been, I feel like I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and yet listening to you and hearing you talk about the production has, has made me rethink and learn some things about practice. So I just wanna thank you very much for taking the time with us today.
Thank you, martha. It’s a pleasure.