Commentary: Putting a spotlight on humanity
To the outside world, whose knowledge is based primarily through what they’ve heard about or seen on TV, it may seem that growing up gay in the state of Wyoming would be like a prison sentence — or worse. Wyoming is a place that is about as straight-laced and non-diverse as it comes, right?
And isn’t Wyoming where that horrible tragedy involving a young, homosexual college student occurred?
But to make judgments based on stereotype or a singular event is essentially prejudicing oneself. Why do so at all — and especially why rush to assume a negative outlook?
Because Harry Woods was that Wyoming boy. Reflections on his childhood — and the perspectives that upbringing helped shape as an adult — might shatter the view of that outside world. This, he would likely surmise, is a good thing.
“I grew up in Cheyenne, and even though it was the state capitol it was still a small town,” Woods, 70, explains. “It was a great place to grow up and it was where I learned some important and wonderful values of life.”
Woods tells of having a loving family, of friendly neighbors, of homes that were unlocked except for one week out of the year — during Cheyenne’s wildly popular and popularly wild Frontier Days event. He recalls growing up alongside Republicans and Democrats, of living across from the Mormon Church and having Jewish and Catholic friends in school.
It wasn’t until college, he notes, that he came to realize “not everyone likes everyone else.”
This realization ultimately would lead Woods down the path of his life’s work.
By the luck of the draw, and a local draft board with an unfairly low quota, Woods avoided Vietnam. But nobody who lived through that era escaped the impacts of the war. Woods dropped out of college at Arizona State, came out of the closet and moved to New Mexico with a partner from his first significant relationship.
Once the cloud of America’s most contentious war, and all of the era’s movements and countermovements, lifted, Woods went back to his roots. Yes, this eventually meant Wyoming. But first and foremost it meant returning to something he’d always been involved in and attracted to, but never allowed himself to fully immerse in: Theater.
“There was a freedom that I could do anything I wanted to do,” he explains of this time period. “That was a really good feeling.”
After a community theater stint in Denver, Woods went back to college. After graduating from the University of Wyoming with a theater degree he got jobs in the field — first in Lawrence, Kan., then back in Laramie at the university, then to Cheyenne where there were two “delightful” playhouses and a community very engaged in theater.
Then, in the twilight of his professional career — “I like to say I’ve advanced to level 70,” he joked earlier this week — Woods came to Crested Butte as the director of the town’s longstanding Mountain Theatre. That was 2012 and not exactly a halcyon period for the small but colorful community theater organization.
“I could tell the theater had been through a difficult time, and I was so glad I knew nothing about it, or anyone involved,” he recalls. “I’ve always believed that you go make your own judgment calls, you don’t let people form those opinions for you.”
In other words, Woods believes in approaching life — and every day in it — with a fresh perspective, untainted by judgment or prejudice or anger. And the beauty of devoting a life to theater is that you get to work to bring happiness, understanding and, hopefully, acceptance into the lives of others.
“In this world, if you can bring any kind of joy or pleasure to people, that is what theater is all about,” Woods says.
“I’m such a peacenik,” he continues. “I try to look at the positive and eliminate the negative. But at the same time you don’t run away from the negative. You deal with it, you address it. We all have to do our part to keep our society the way we know it can be, which is civil.”
And that brings us to the Laramie Project. Yes, this is the play centered on that horrible tragedy in which 17-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Wyoming in 1998 by two men, now serving life sentences, who may have been inspired by homophobic tendencies. It was the incident that shocked America and brought the concept of “hate crime” into the nation’s consciousness.
It was also a situation that struck very close to home for Woods — a gay man teaching theater in the same town, at the same time, that the Shepard tragedy struck.
The “Laramie Project” is actually a play about the reaction to Shepard’s murder, based in part on hundreds of interviews conducted with inhabitants of the town in the wake of its most notorious event. A character in the play is Woods himself.
“I was reluctant to revisit the ‘Laramie Project,’” says Woods, who for more than two years upon its release was immersed with the show, seeing its debuts in Denver, New York and Sundance. “But it’s as relevant today as it was then.”
Plus, Woods says, the “Laramie Project” is a play about hope. It’s a story about how you come to terms with ways you want to improve your life and improve your community. Even small acts of kindness can cause big ripple effects, he believes, and he’s been tossing those pebbles into the waters pretty much all his life.
The “Laramie Project” will be the last show Woods directs for the Crested Butte Mountain Theatre. He’s retiring at the end of the year, but plans to continue enjoying this “glorious” area and the “delightful” people who visit and call the Gunnison Valley home.
The “Laramie Project” opened earlier this week and has remaining shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday in the Mallardi Cabaret Theatre. Doors open at 7 p.m., curtain is at 7:30.
(Chris Dickey can be reached at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)