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Notes from "The Laramie Project" Director

Brent Stansell (Performing Arts)
"You are about to see [scenes from] a play that has captured the attention of our nation and became one of the most popular plays in America. But these are also plays that have in large part been lost to this next generation."
And so it was important to me in working on these plays that we also explore why this story might have relevance to high school students in 2021. Certainly, many of the issues that the play addresses—homophobia, the prevalence of hate crimes, divisions within the country, and misinformation (to name a few)—have not gone away. And so to that end, [Burke’s full-length productions feature] an original Prologue and Epilogue shaped from words written by Burke students themselves. My hope is that our experience and reflections grappling with these plays carry with us through the rest of our lives.

When Matthew Shepard died in October of 1998, his beating and murder cemented itself in our national consciousness.  His murder resonated with an American media and an American public who were all too familiar with hate.  In a culture just then addressing how it would respond to acts of hateful violence against gay people, the media seized upon a powerful and symbolic story about a young man who was tied to a fence and left for dead in the middle of America, in Laramie, Wyoming.

But this story was much too complicated to be expressed in a thirty-second sound byte. Matthew’s murder had our nation talking about hate crimes, homophobia, class, sexuality, gender, drugs, the death penalty and more.  His death forced many of us to look at ourselves and at a culture in which this vicious murder could take place.  There was a complicated story to tell, but who would make an investment to tell it?

Moises Kaufman decided, after his experience reading transcripts of the Oscar Wilde trials for the successful creation and production of his first play, Gross Indecency, that someone needed to document the dialogue emerging as a result of Matthew’s murder.  Moises wanted to listen to the people of Laramie and to find out more about Matthew Shepard.  What made Laramie different and in what ways was it the same as any other town in America?  So he proposed an exploratory trip to his company, the Tectonic Theater Project, and soon 10 theater people from New York were on their way to Laramie, armed with cell phones and nervous about what they would find.  They came to interview the people of Laramie, to learn about their anger, sadness, grief, and frustration, to share with them their pain and anguish.

Many members of the media seemed uninterested in understanding the views and perspectives of the people of Laramie. However, the Tectonic Theatre Project made six visits over a year and half, talking to the people of Laramie, listening to them, befriending them, and developing lasting relationships. The company had to comprehend and come to terms with the reality of Matthew’s brutal murder and the reality of how this event changed the lives of every single one of Laramie’s residents.

Then the company was faced with the task of bringing these people that they knew so well alive on the stage.  With over two hundred interviews on tape and more than ten company members with different experiences and interests, Moises needed a way to sort through the information they had collected.  He asked them to share with the other company members what moved or inspired them: he wanted the company to find “poetry in the vernacular,” find theatricality in the voices of these citizens.  The dramaturgs became writers and editors in selecting what to share with each other.  Then they became actors and directors presenting theatrical “moments” to the group. The play told a story through “moments” that would convey meaning through juxtaposition, a method inspired by Brecht and his concept of “epic theatre.” The result was a rough draft of a play that would undergo several revisions before its debut.

The Laramie Project opened to critical acclaim at the Denver Center Theater on February 19, 2000, and then Tectonic brought the play to New York City at The Union Square Theatre on May 18, 2000.  The company then fulfilled its vision when they brought the play to Laramie in November of 2000. The response from the audience after the opening night of The Laramie Project at the University of Wyoming, including a large number of people who were watching themselves as characters, was emotionally overwhelming and critically positive.  In general, the people of Laramie felt that Tectonic had created a narrative true to who they were and what they had been through.  If anything, some people thought that Tectonic had been too kind to their town, but Tectonic had truly grown to love the people there and felt an obligation to follow Father Roger’s words that they “say it right, say it correct.”

The theater is a place that blurs the lines between art and life, between representation and reality, and The Laramie Project blurs those lines even further.  The Laramie Project dramatically presents the words of the people of Laramie in their authenticity, and yet these words only tell a part of the truth: there are still other voices and hours of tape that will remain unheard.  The play is only one retelling of this vicious murder; there are others and there will undoubtedly be many more.

So why tell this story?  Perhaps we see in these more than sixty characters a sampling of people that come from our own hometowns.  Maybe we each find someone different with whom to relate.  Perhaps we better understand Matt’s death through witnessing a community coping with life without him.  Maybe the actual words of the people of Laramie make us feel we are closer to finding the truth.

Or perhaps these words continue to pose questions for which we are still trying to find the answers:  How should we respond to Matthew’s murder? What should we remember, learn, and carry with us?  What should we do about hate in this country?  What do we learn when we examine ourselves through the theatre?  How should this event and this night of theatre change the world we live in?
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