Curtain Call: The Laramie Project
What: The Laramie Project (live theater)
When: 2010-10-08 - 2010-10-17
“Laramie sparkles, doesn’t it?”—Matthew Shepard
On October 6 and 7, 1998, what would become one of the most widely profiled hate crimes of the second half of twentieth century America took place, not on the streets of a large metropolitan city, but rather in a remote, rural area surrounding a small, sleepy, almost unheard of town in the sparsely populated western state of Wyoming. In the early morning hours just after midnight, Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old gay political-science major at the University of Wyoming, was kidnapped, robbed, tortured, pistol whipped to the point of death, and tied to a fence along the hills surrounding Laramie. Discovered eighteen hours later by a passing cyclist who at first mistook the dying student for a scarecrow, Shepard was rushed to Poudre Valley Hospital in nearby Fort Collins, Colorado, where doctors discovered multiple skull fractures and lacerations as well as severe brainstem damage. With injuries too severe to attempt operation and brain damage that affected his body’s ability to regulate his heartbeat or body temperature, Shepard, while remaining in a coma, clung to life for another five days as those who had heard the news held candlelight vigils outside the hospital. Finally, at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998, the young man whose savage beating had begun to make headlines across the nation died, even as the search for his attackers continued.
Shortly after Shepard’s death, Laramie police arrested Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in connection with the savage crime after finding Shepard’s shoes and wallet, and a gun stained with Shepard’s blood, in the front of the young men’s pickup truck.
The arrest of the assailants, however, was only the beginning of a firestorm of controversy that made headlines around the world. Shepard’s funeral was protested by antigay religious groups, and supporters of both pro- and anti-gay social and political organizations protested even as the trial of McKinney and Henderson began. The alleged attackers were ultimately convicted of felony murder, and, after a plea for leniency from Shepard’s parents, were, in lieu of the death penalty, sentenced to two consecutive life sentences apiece for the torturous beating death of the young college student.
From the tragedy, however, grew glimmers of new hope, as the state of Wyoming, which had not addressed the subject of hate crimes in its legislature, created and passed new legislation providing additional protection for all people affected by hate crimes. Other states followed, making Shepard’s death one of the key factors in a late-twentieth-century political and social movement to create more and more severe deterrents for crimes such as the one that took Shepard’s life.
Nearly a dozen years after Shepard’s brutal murder, his story continues to be told in the form of books (one authored by Shepard’s mother, Judy), documentaries, and stage performances. Now, the Jackson County Stage Company is challenging the area not just to enjoy, but to think and reflect, as it presents the critically acclaimed docudrama The Laramie Project, coming October 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, and 17 to the Varsity Center for the Arts. Evening performances take place at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 and $10.
Based on transcripts of more than four-hundred hours of live interviews, The Laramie Project tells the story of the Shepard murder through the eyes of the residents of Laramie. The performance piece, which features nearly eighty monologues, was first created in 2000 by director Moises Kaufman in collaboration with New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, which made more than a half-dozen trips to the tiny Wyoming town during a year and a half to collect interviews. From them, Kaufman created a theatrical collage that details the dramatic story from the perspectives of the people living in Laramie at the time. Some were Shepard’s family members, some were friends, and many did not know him at all, but simply had the opinions of small town residents rocked by brutality for the first time.
The Stage Company incarnation of The Laramie Project features a cast of nearly twenty, and brings to shocking life the true story of a small university town coming to terms with the crime that would forever be associated with what was once a peaceful and unassuming western hamlet.
The Laramie Project is codirected by Jennifer Caudell and Sarah Dubach, who recently talked to Nightlife about the Stage Company’s decision to address such a controversial topic.
Dubach says the decision to produce the play is not a surprise, as the script had been under consideration for some time.
“As far as doing the show, there have been several members of the company that have suggested it in years past,” Dubach says. “This season, there were members of the play-selection committee as well as new members that have come into the company who suggested it again. There were some reservations in years past, but the excitement and energy and the desire to do it came back pretty full force.”
While many people might expect to attend a theatrical performance to see a play, The Laramie Project does not follow a traditional play format, instead growing into more of a performance piece featuring a collection of monologues by people whose words were set into script as they landed on tape or on camera a decade ago as the performance was being researched. Dubach is quick to remind audiences that what they should expect, in lieu of a feel-good, big-budget production, is a powerful, hard-hitting social commentary designed to inspire reflection as much as entertainment.
“They call it a docudrama,” Dubach says. “We’re also going very minimalist with this show— minimal sets, minimal costumes, things like that, and letting the power of the words tell the story.”
Given the storm of controversy that surrounded the Shepard murder and even past performances of The Laramie Project in other communities (religious and antigay groups have picketed and protested several productions across the country), the question of whether or not the Stage Company has encountered any controversy or resistance is a natural one. Dubach, however, tells Nightlife that if anything, the reaction from the community has been positive.
“We haven’t had any resistance or controversy that I’m aware of,” Dubach says. “In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. We’re working very closely with the LGBT group on campus, and we’re working with a couple of local churches as far as providing additional outlets surrounding the show. We’re trying to do a candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard— you know, things like that which surround the show. Of course, there are always reservations. There’s a character in the show, the reverend Fred Phelps from Kansas. He and his cronies have been terribly outspoken in a negative way. They protested Matt’s funeral; they were at the sentencing of Russell and Aaron. They have protested performances of this show. So that has crossed our minds. We have considered the possibility of controversy and protests, but as of yet we haven’t encountered anything.”
In order to stay faithful to the power and intensity of the true story of The Laramie Project, the cast, according to Dubach, has spent time not only in rehearsal, but in research as well.
“We’re not looking to mimic anyone, although we do realize that there are other projects out there,” Dubach says. “There are documentaries that we’ve watched bits and pieces of as a cast. We haven’t been in contact with the actual people [portrayed in The Laramie Project]; that’s an avenue that we chose not to go down. But we’ve seen pictures of several of these people online, we’ve researched blogs and reports online, and we’ve seen pictures of what the area looks like, and the fence where Matthew was found.”
Although hate crimes were nothing new in America at the time of Shepard’s murder, the savagery of the beating death sparked renewed social fervor and commitment on the part of human-rights groups around the country to create more and harsher punishments for such crimes. When asked why one murder in a small western town inspired so much action, Dubach says that Shepard’s murder can, more than a dozen years later, provide an important lesson to the people of Carbondale.
“Laramie was a small town, so much like Carbondale,” Dubach says. “Other than the University [of Wyoming], it’s a small town in the middle of the Bible Belt. Yet the event garnered national attention, I think, because of the shock of it. People in town say it over and over again in the words of the script: ‘This couldn’t happen in Laramie,’ or ‘Why Laramie?’ Also, I think it was because it was two kids that committed the crime. They were just in their twenties. I don’t really know, but it seems like some higher force decided that it was time to call the nation’s attention to the fact that things like that do happen everywhere.”
The Stage Company will follow all performances of The Laramie Project with a discussion in which audience members may voice questions and opinions about the play and about the controversial case that inspired its creation. Dubach wants people who attend the performances to remain after the curtain to discuss particulars about the show with the cast and its directors.
“We hope that everyone will come out and see this,” Dubach says. “It’s a powerful piece, and we have a very interesting cast. We have a lot of new members, as well as a lot of people who did theater many years ago, and this is their return to theater after a long time. This show has brought out a variety of old and new performers, which is really cool for us. From the beginning, we made it clear to the cast about how true we wanted to remain to the story. This isn’t to be a dramatization. These are the true, honest words of almost eighty different people. There has to be a sensitivity to the fact that it is nonfiction, and there has to be compassion for what we’re about to embark on here. There are so many emotions and thoughts that these words bring up, even among our cast, so there’s a lot to it. There will be a time of discussion after each performance where people can ask questions and discuss things with us and each other, so it’s going to be great.”
By the way, Thomas B. Howard Jr., the programs director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, will present Erasing Hate: A Community Discussion Thursday, October 21 at 7 p.m. in the Morris Library Auditorium as part of this year’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered History Month.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call the Stage Company box office, open Mondays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at (618) 549-5466. The Stage Company also accepts twenty-four-hour ticket reservations at (800) 838-3006 and online at <http://www.StageCompany.org>.
who: Jackson County Stage Company
what: The Laramie Project (live theater)
where: Varsity Center for the Arts
when: October 8, 9, and 10, and October 15, 16, and 17