Watch the video of Mark Berger’s talk above
“The Laramie cycle is not just about Matthew. It’s about an American town. It’s about every town. It’s about our town. It’s about empathizing with people who are different,” said Mark Berger ’06, speaking to Concord Academy students, faculty, and staff from the lectern in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel on October 2.
A film, theater, and TV producer in New York and a former member of the touring cast of Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project and the world premiere of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, Berger spoke from intimate knowledge of this influential work of theater. The play is a drama about the community of Laramie, Wyo., in the immediate aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming. Media coverage of his death brought attention to hate crimes and eventually spurred support for federal hate crime legislation bearing Shepard’s name, which passed in 2009.
Berger gave his talk just hours before the CA Performing Arts Department’s opening night performance of The Laramie Project, giving historical context, depth, and nuance to the school community’s engagement with this difficult subject. His visit couldn’t have been more timely. This fall marks the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death. It’s also the 30th anniversary of CA’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA, founded as the Gay Straight Alliance), one of the first of its kind. For a small independent high school, Concord Academy has played an outsized role in LGBTQ awareness and support. Notably, CA was also the first high school to produce The Laramie Project, not long after its premiere.
Mark Berger ’06 speaking in the Elizabeth B. Hall Chapel
For Berger, the concept of “dialogue” is central to Laramie’s pioneering form of documentary theater. “What Tectonic did by not writing a traditional narrative play is put themselves directly in conversation with the town, with its citizens, with the event of Matthew’s murder,” he said. “They decided the only way for them to tell this story was to use the real words of the people of Laramie.”
As distinct from the reporters who descended upon the town and stymied discussion there, and the media coverage that riveted the nation, the play has invited discussion and inspired audiences and artists around the world. It was created collaboratively by the members of the company in dialogue with town residents.
Berger is a gifted storyteller, and he put his talent for communicating a complex narrative in service of a call to action. He recalled the crisp fall day in Boston’s Copley Square in 2010 when he, a recent graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts, was headed to the Cutler Majestic Theatre for opening night of The Laramie Project there, and his debut as a professional actor. Cutting through the Boston Common, he saw a sea of white — hundreds of students in white T-shirts. He heard their chants: “Love is louder. Love is louder. Love is louder.” Then he noticed rainbow designs and a group dressed in angel wings. “Then I knew — this was for us,” he said. “These people are here for our show.”
Left: Kendall Bartel ’21, dramaturg and GSA liaison for the 2018 production of The Laramie Project. Right: Students listening to Berger’s talk.
Supporters had heard that Fred Phelps, founder of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church and known for his hateful homophobic stances, had threatened to protest that production, as he had nearly every production of the show over the previous decade. The students wouldn’t let that be the voice of Boston: They had amassed to show their support for the company and the real cultural work it was doing in the world. It was a real-life enactment of a scene from the play — a scene in which a friend of Shepard’s describes a group of counterprotesters dressed as angels silently surrounding Phelps, to cover his message of hate with one of love.
It was Berger’s explanation of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, though, that gave particular urgency to his speech. Members of the Tectonic company returned to Laramie a decade after their first visits, thinking they would see how far the town had come and add a coda to the show. What they encountered was a denial that the murder had been a hate crime — the town’s story had changed, the narrative about Matthew Shepard and the reason for his death had changed, and in grappling with what its role should be, the company developed an entirely new play.
“We need to take big risks, ask uncomfortable questions, be fearless in our pursuit of truth.”Though Berger said he understood why the townspeople didn’t want to be residents of “that Laramie,” he was impassioned about the dire implications of refusing to accept an unwelcome narrative and instead substituting a counterfactual one. “It sounds a lot like things here today,” he said — with fake news proliferating, the trans community threatened, and a rise in violence motivated by hate and mistrust of minority groups.
– Mark Berger ’06
“We’re in a time when the truth is under attack, and changing narratives are starting to blur the lines so much that it feels like we are coming undone,” Berger said. “And so we must identify this misinformation for what it is. It’s a weapon against our humanity, against our country. And it’s only getting stronger.” Questioning what CA students’ role in this national dialogue might, Berger called attention to the differences among Americans, and the work that every individual can do to bridge these divides. It’s what the members of the Tectonic Theater Project did in going to talk with residents in Laramie.
“I believe that in more cases than not, at our core, our values, our hearts, are more aligned than we think,” he said. “But right now we aren’t talking to each other, because it’s too scary, because the divide is too great, because we all think that we are better than our other. So we need to dig deep. We need to take big risks, ask uncomfortable questions, be fearless in our pursuit of truth. We must examine our ugly parts. We must find a way to understand them. We must fight against the hate with love, and we must start yesterday.”
Berger urged the students who could to vote, and those who were waiting to register when their time comes. He asked who would start the next conversations in the places where our deepest national turmoil has erupted — in Ferguson, in Pittsburgh, in Orlando, Parkland, and Charlottesville.
“See the play,” he said, “then defend our nation.”
As a CA student, Mark Berger ’06 performed in many shows and was a member of the Theatre 3 Company. He attended the Tisch School of the Arts, where he studied acting in the Meisner Studio, the Experimental Theatre Wing, and the International Theatre Wing in Amsterdam. He now works as a film, theater, and TV producer in New York City. Berger was the associate producer of the Tony Award-winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring Neil Patrick Harris, as well as Of Mice and Men, with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. He also produced an exclusive audio walk by renowned artist Janet Cardiff in Hawaii. As an actor, Berger performed in the national tour of The Laramie Project as well as the world premiere of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, both directed by Moises Kaufman. He is currently working as Sam Rockwell’s producing partner and is an MBA candidate at the Stern School of Business at NYU.