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Language Lessons

Playwright Moisés Kaufman’s theater is doing away with conventions, including the kitchen sink.



Few works of theater have been as culturally significant as “The Laramie Project.” Chronicling the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath, the play struck a nerve with audiences and has become part of the national dialogue addressing homophobia and hate crimes.

It came about after playwright and director Moisés Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theatre Project visited Laramie, Wyo. There, they interviewed the city’s denizens about the crime. The company used dialogue from those interviews to create “The Laramie Project,” innovative both in its choice of subject matter and its storytelling method.

To discuss “Laramie” and his other pioneering approaches to theater, Kaufman will lecture Monday at the University of Richmond.

“I don’t like theater where there’s a kitchen sink onstage,” Kaufman says. “I think a lot of the theater we see is very traditional, and is very much either realism or naturalism, which are 19th-century forms. … I think film and television do that better. The theater allows us to use the audience’s imagination much more, and that’s what I’m interested in exploring.”

In his work “33 Variations” for example, the play jumps back and forth through time, exploring Ludwig van Beethoven’s obsession with Anton Diabelli’s waltz and a researcher obsessed with discovering the root of Beethoven’s fascination. The first act closes with four characters using overlapping dialogue, saying the same words at the same time but conveying different meanings, depending on who’s speaking.

Interestingly, while Kaufman’s works are innovative in their storytelling technique, they often focus on real-life subjects. His play “Gross Indecency” explored the trial of Oscar Wilde, and Doug Wright’s Pulitzer-winning “I Am My Own Wife” — which Kaufman directed and developed through Tectonic — focused on German antiques collector Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who survived both Nazi and East German regimes as a transgendered person.

“It’s almost a coincidence that so much of our work deals with life,” Kaufman says. “One of the questions we ask in our theater company is if theater can play a role in the national dialogue. [“Laramie”] really did play a role at a moment where America was in the middle of that conversation.”

As much as professional productions of “Laramie” affect audiences, Kaufman says the play seems to have resonated most strongly with middle and high schools performing the show. “A 13-year-old boy would be playing a 53-year-old gay man, and he would go home and talk to his parents about gay people and inequality,” Kaufman says. “That’s the nature of this dialogue.”

Kaufman is at work on an Afro-Cuban jazz opera adaptation of Bizet’s “Carmen,” set in Cuba. He also recently directed Daniel Beaty’s “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” a play about black actor and singer Paul Robeson. The play just finished its run at Arena Stage in Washington, and will move on to Los Angeles and then New York.

“What I’m most interested in is: How do you explore theatrical languages?” he says. “How do you make theater that is profound theatrically? How do you really allow theater to speak in its own voice?” S


Moisés Kaufman will lecture at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts on Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free and can be reserved by calling 289-8980.


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