An Interview with Stephen Belber

Stephen Belber is a New York based playwright and screenwriter. His other plays include The Power of Duff, Match, and Carol Mulroney. He was an associate writer/performer in Tectonic Theater Company’s The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which address the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

You were one of the original creators and performers of The Laramie Project, which is now such an iconic part of the theatre canon. What was it like to be a part of that? Did you realize at the time what it would eventually become?

No, I don’t think we knew it would be performed as often as it is. I think we knew that Moisés Kaufman’s theatre company was sort of poised to do different work, that was approaching theatre in a docudrama type way wasn’t being done that much, and that that was an exciting way to take on social justice issues, and… that it was a more direct approach that could maybe tap into something bigger while still employing theatrical techniques, both conventional and less-so.

It was an incredible experience for me—very, very formative and empowering; in many ways we really had to inquire whether theatre had a valid contribution to make to the national and even international conversation that was going on around that event, around Matt Shepard’s death… and to sort of ask, “do we have anything positive and valuable to add to this discussion?” And we weren’t sure of the answer. But the moment we got out there, we knew that we were finding raw, intense, beautiful and dark words from people directly and indirectly involved with what happened. We knew that this was different than what the press was doing and what the press was capable of doing—and we also knew that it was different than a documentary, which has its own, different approach to “what is the truth.”

We were "theatre people," interpreting the words we heard, we were, ourselves, characters—which is what made us decide to put ourselves in as characters with inherently subjective views. We weren’t claiming to be truth tellers; we were just trying to convey some of the very moving stuff that we heard. So all that to say… yeah, it was very cool to be a part of. It was exciting, and it was powerful to hear people speaking, unadulterated, to us about how they felt about being part of this event.

How would you say that writing something like Dusk Rings a Bell is different from writing something like The Laramie Project?

Well it’s different because Tectonic (the theatre company behind The Laramie Project) is really not about a playwright going into a room and writing a play and coming out and having actors rehearse it. One of Tectonic’s specialties is to go out and find a play, and create it in a rehearsal room: to develop work—to develop a piece. And so, I came from the sort of more traditional playwright-goes-into-a-room mentality, and as much as I loved working on Laramie and want to continue that kind of work, I still love going into a room and writing a play. Dusk was, for me, kind of an amalgam of both things. When we wrote the epilogue to Laramie, the  Ten Years Later piece, I went down and I interviewed Russell Henderson, who was one of the perpetrators, three or four times. The first time was really for Laramie, and then I went back on my own—I was so intrigued by what I was hearing from Russell, and I knew I wanted to do something where I did go into a room and write, based on those conversations. And I guess you could say Dusk Rings a Bell largely came out of that: wanting to put that character on stage in a prolonged way, and in a fictional way where I could really take liberties with my own interpretation and experience of him…mostly because I was just so moved by a lot of what I was hearing. I was also disturbed by some of it, and I wanted to put it in a theatrical setting that would hopefully challenge audiences to think about how they think about people like that.

Do you feel there’s a core philosophical question in Dusk Rings a Bell?

I wouldn’t say a core philosophical question. I would say I was hoping to pull the rug out from beneath perceptions that we all have: predisposed perceptions of what a certain type of person, or who a certain type of person, is. And what their thought process is, and the room in their minds for greater thought than we might attribute to them... Because the day in 1998, when I saw Russell Henderson’s picture in the NY Times, the day after the crime, I thought a certain type of thing about that guy, who he was and [what he] represents, and what his background was… and yet the writer in me wanted to know more. I wanted to know all the details of that life, and it took me a long time to get them. But I think that it’s a noble pursuit for all of us, with everyone in our life and outside of our life who we don’t know, that before we lock in on a perception of “who this person is,” that we do our due diligence and excavate and understand, because I think it will rarely be the same thing we thought it was going to be.

One thing I find interesting about the play is that it only has two characters, it isn’t very long, but it somehow feels expansive, and epic in a way.  Do you see it that same way?

Yeah, I mean I certainly wanted it to cover time, a fair amount of years. I feel like there is an epic sprawl to most humans’ lives, simply because of the time that they’re on this planet. And what’s interesting to me is the way they change—or don’t—or try to change over the course of time. It’s a two-hander, not a huge theatrical extravaganza, but I did want to create an epic journey for them. And, you know, I think both characters are going through big emotional changes as we encounter them throughout the play. And that is exciting to me, and exciting to be able to do in a way that doesn’t require a lot of lights and music and bells and whistles, but rather as the emotional equivalent of those things.

What do you think is the fundamental attraction between Molly and Ray, and then the flip side of that: Where’s the tension there that stops this from being a fairytale kind of a story?

The attraction is based in large part on this memory that they share, and it was a golden memory, and it was beautiful. It was one of those things that we all have and look back on and cherish. So much has happened to each of them since then. And the play’s really about… yeah, can you go back and have a fairytale ending when you unearth that memory of who you were for a second? The tension in the play are the shifts that have gone on in their individual lives since then. The scar tissue is very hard to remove. Particularly for Molly, given her own scar tissue, to see past what Ray has done, to see how Ray has tried to recover, which I think she finds beautiful and noble, but she can’t get past what he did… the crime he participated in. And try as she might, in the end she can’t go back and actually inhabit that world fully because… well, because of who she is, and because of the extent of that crime. She just can’t synthesize the two.