Professor Bob Gainer’s introduction for Guest Speaker Leigh Fondakowski

February 27, 2013

In the year 2000, I traveled to New York City to attend a performance of The Laramie Project, for which Leigh Fondakowski was the Head writer. It was an extraordinary piece of theatre which addressed an American tragedy in the news.

Just this past month, Leigh co-directed a major revival of The Laramie Project and its sequel, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in NYC, were co-directed by Leigh. I’d like to share a few comments by the reviewer for The New York Times, who described the Laramie Project Cycle as the Tectonic Theater Project’s two-part exploration of the murder of a gay young man Matthew Shepard in 1998:

    The effectiveness of the production, directed by Moises Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski, comes from the wide perspectives it weaves together: testimony from Shepard’s friends and acquaintances, from the police officers intimately involved in bring the perpetrators to justice, from prominent Laramie citizens who are dismayed at how their city is being portrayed, eventually from the killers themselves.

The critic ends the review:

    This elementally graceful work of theatre underscores the point: Some stories – painful though they may be to hear – gain meaning and stature in the retelling. Why not keep listening?

Today at lunch, Leigh revealed that she started her college years with an intended major in communications, then midway, switched to philosophy, and finally became smitten with the art of theatre and specifically, playwriting. She asked herself can theatre people, like journalists and philosophers, have a role in the conversation about our society’s biggest challenges and issues?

I mentioned that Leigh was the Head Writer of The Laramie Project. Since 1995, she has been a member of Tectonic Theatre Project, which produces innovative works exploring theatrical language and form, fostering an artistic dialogue with audiences on the social, political and human issues of the day.

Leigh is an Emmy nominated co-screenwriter for the HBO adaptation of The Laramie Project, and a co-writer of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

Her play, The People’s Temple, created from Jonestown survivors’ interviews, has been performed under her direction at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Perseverance Theater, American Theater Company and The Guthrie Theater, and received the Glickman Award for Best New Play in the Bay Area in 2005. Another original play, I Think I Like Girls, which premiered at Encore Theatre in San Francisco under her direction, was voted one of the top 10 plays of 2002 by The Advocate.

Leigh is a 2007 recipient of the NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights and a 2009 Macdowell Colony Fellow. She is an Imagine Fund fellow at the University of Minnesota, and has recently written a new play about 19th century actress Charlotte Cushman. Her first work of creative non-fiction, Stories from Jonestown, was just published in 2013. She is a founding member of the artist collective, The Study Group. Leigh’s latest play, Spill, about the BP oil disaster, will premiere in 2013/2014.

I would like to end this introduction by sharing two of Leigh’s own statements:

About her investigations and writing of The People’s Temple play:

    American culture prefers simple stories, with obvious villains and heroes. So our struggle as writers is to allow all the different perspectives to live together on stage – and to help the audience tolerate the contradictions which challenge American attempts to simplify.

And about Jonestown:

    I am still inspired by the people who lived and the people who died, and I am still learning about myself through this process, both personally and artistically. And as an artist in society, making work that I love and that is meaningful to me is the highest expression of my profession.

I am delighted that Leigh Fondakowski is here tonight to talk about: “Narrating Jonestown: Transforming History into Art.”