How can it be possible that this big state of Montana, with all its wide-open spaces, is too small for some of us? What is it about our cultural isolation that makes Montana so attractive and yet so dangerous to the different?
These questions factor into Out Under the Big Blue Sky, an original play by local resident Laramie Dean exploring what it’s like to be gay, lesbian or bisexual in Montana. Dean’s script, a version of documentary theater that strays somewhat from the strict transcription of The Laramie Project (no relation), goes beyond the basic questions of coming out of the closet in Cowboy Country, delving deeper into the nurturing—and sometimes threatening—aspects of being openly gay in a place not necessarily accustomed to diverse lifestyles. Montana is a state that prides itself on individual freedoms but has a history of prejudice against same-sex couples. It’s a state with a rugged frontiersman reputation but an increasing population of pioneers of a different sort.
These juxtapositions are familiar to Missoulians. Most notably, in 2002, the area experienced two apparent hate crimes directed at the gay and lesbian community. Carla Grayson and Adrienne Neff, who had pushed for same-sex health benefits at the University of Montana, found their house burned down, a result of arson, just days after filing suit against the University. Later in the year, six members of a UM fraternity admitted to vandalizing a wall bordering a rival house with homophobic phrases. At the time, gay and lesbian activists called attention to the cultural clash between “old” and “new” Montana, the discrepancies between whom we claimed to be and how we acted in reality.
Dean’s play looks back at these wounds, to see if the scars have healed, and to place these incidents in the broader context of what the gay and lesbian community still encounters in Montana. He wrote Out Under the Big Blue Sky after conducting five months of interviews with 16 residents who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Most of the script is taken verbatim from the interviews, but Dean admits to employing some creative license in shaping the characters’ quotes to better fit the storyline. (Interestingly, of those Dean talked to, only one requested a name change—the other 15 are portrayed on stage under their real names, speaking of actual personal events.) Only one character, Jeremy, the central figure in the play, is not based on a specific interview; he’s an amalgam of research and Dean’s own personal experiences.
This structure provides Dean an open landscape to tell his story, and the script never loses its impact or sense of reality. It’s best compared to The Laramie Project, the Tectonic Theatre Company’s retelling of Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming. However, unlike The Laramie Project, which focuses just as much on the theater company that interviewed the townspeople as on the townspeople themselves, Out Under the Big Blue Sky does not lose itself in preachiness, or become so layered in information that the point gets buried in monologues. The reason is that Dean doesn’t have to create transitions between documented quotes—he uses Jeremy to act as the spine of the play, and to carry the production.
Out Under the Big Blue Sky revolves around young Jeremy (a convincingly unsure Garrett Burreson) as he wrestles with his sexuality, his relationship with his best friend and his future in Missoula. Throughout the play, various characters—Dean’s interviewees—appear and disappear from corners of the stage to dispense advice to Jeremy through the telling of their own stories: Kris (Ture Carlsen), who came out to his family on Christmas day; Amy (Martha Anne Neslin), who daydreamed in class about making out with girls; Bryce (Clay Tuck), who announced his homosexuality in front of his high school friends at a Gay Pride rally; Dani (Lily Gladstone), who got married on her spring break; and so on. Most talk directly to Jeremy, while others take over the stage and briefly digress into meaningful anecdotes that address Jeremy’s long list of questions.
Early in the opening act, as Jeremy is first coming to terms with his sexuality—“Something’s been happening to me lately,” he explains—it’s recommended that he find supportive friends and surround himself with those who have struggled with questions of sexuality. As the play moves on, it becomes clear that the other characters filling the stage have become his foundation. Jeremy is torn between leaving Missoula for something bigger and staying in this imperfect place because it is home to his friends, and his history.
It’s the clarity of Jeremy’s struggle that allows the audience to embrace and absorb all of the other characters. We care about them because Jeremy cares about them, and their personal stories carry weight because we realize they will factor into Jeremy’s decision. In this way, Dean has created a nifty loophole in the idea of documentary theater, crafting the script to his own compelling means without losing the power or presence of his interviews.
Out Under the Big Blue Sky debuts at the Crystal Theatre Friday, May 6, and runs through Sunday, May 8. Tickets cost $5 and performances begin at 7:30 PM.