THEATER | The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later—An Epilogue

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Technology and theater don’t always play together nicely.  But the Tectonic Theater Project‘s simultaneous worldwide premiere reading of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later – An Epilogue” was a fascinating example of how the two could be fused together to help start a community dialogue.  And the community was a big one.

On Monday, October 12, 2009, people gathered in theaters in all fifty states in the U.S., as well as England, Australia, Spain, China, New Zealand, Canada, Israel, and Venezuela, and groups of actors read the new script documenting the Tectonic Theater Project’s return to Laramie, Wyoming, ten years after the murder of Matthew Shepard.  This grouping of nearly 150 theaters included the Lincoln Center in New York City, where the original cast of the first “Laramie Project” also read before a live audience.

Being just a couple of time zones away, the Guthrie Theater participated in a live internet video link to Lincoln Center to bookend the evening, immediately before and after the Minneapolis reading.  The New York audience was warned by a member of Tectonic that, because of the expanded internet audience, if they neglected to turn off their cell phones, they would be bothering not just the hundreds of people around them, but tens of thousands of people around the world.  Host Glenn Close gave an overview of the scope of the evening, then introduced Judy Shepard, activist and mother of Matthew Shepard.  Her words in the play that followed summed it up best, “I’m just doing what a mother does when you hurt her children.” 

Mrs. Shepard has been leading the charge for hate crimes legislation, and many other strategies to foster understanding and erase hate.  She’s just written a book, “The Meaning of Matthew,” and has been crisscrossing the country spreading the message.  It struck me as odd, applauding in Minneapolis for someone halfway across the country, on a projection screen, who of course couldn’t hear us or see us.  Maybe it was just a way of proving to ourselves that we were there.  What other response can you have to a woman like that?  I suppose it’s enough to know that she was aware how many of us were out there, scattered across the globe, mirroring the audience and actors she had in front of her.  Judy Shepard said that people come up to her all the time and talk about how they’re about to present the original “Laramie Project,” and how excited they are.  Or if they’ve already been part of a production, they tell her how it has changed their lives.  “People go from tunnel vision, to a vision of the world that accepts everyone.  Not just gays and lesbians, but anyone who’s different.  Laramie, Wyoming ten years later isn’t any further ahead or further behind than the rest of the country.  But it does offer a different perspective.”

Moises Kaufman, Artistic Director of the Tectonic Theater Project and one of the authors and performers who worked on both plays, followed Judy Shepard, to help introduce the reading.  “As someone who’s never twitted before, this is quite an experiment.”  He was referring to the fact that after the reading was over, they wanted everyone to turn their phones back on again, and use Twitter to send them questions in New York for the Q&A session afterward.  The moderator of the discussion took turns taking questions from the live New York audience, and questions that came in over her laptop computer nearby.  In the first of many instances of gallows humor that evening, Kaufman noted that they were modeling this global theater experiment after the Federal Theater Project “during the first Great Depression.”  The Federal Theater would stage the same play in many states at the same time, aiming to create a larger collective experience and hopefully serve as a platform for national discourse and change.  Tectonic was drawn by the idea of returning to Laramie because the ripple effects from a murder there are much stronger and more immediate.  “In New York, if there’s a murder, even just down the block from where I live, it doesn’t affect me.  I’m not connected to it.  It’s just something that happens.  In a small town like Laramie, with only 27,000 people, a murder has resonance.  For many people, there was only one degree of separation between them and Matthew or his killers.”

“At a break in rehearsal today, one of our cast members said, ‘A thousand actors around the country are having the same rehearsal.’  Another cast member said, ‘I hope theirs is going better.’  That’s what happens when a company works together for ten years,” joked Kaufman.  He wished all the other theaters to “break legs” and requested that all the spectators “be good audiences.”  Then, in the first bit of technical comedy for the evening, as Moises Kaufman said, “We’re going to turn off the live feed now,” his image abruptly froze before he could quite finish his thought.  The Guthrie audience got a lot of good laughs to get the evening started.  Ben McGovern, the director of the Guthrie’s reading (and director of studio programming for the Guthrie’s black box on the ninth floor), came out quickly to introduce the ensemble and get things started.  And quite an ensemble it was.  The cast of readers was a great cross-section of Guthrie regulars – Mark Benninghofen, Michael Booth, Bob Davis, Melissa Hart, Charity Jones, Tracey Maloney, Kris L. Nelson, and Michelle O’Neill.  Chairs, music stands, scripts, bottled water.  Since the Guthrie anticipated larger response than the Dowling Studio could hold, the reading took place on the expansive McGuire Proscenium stage.  The house had several hundred people on hand – gay and straight, young and old, alone, in pairs, or in groups.  It was nice to see such an enthusiastic turnout.

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later – An Epilogue” isn’t your typical epilogue.  It is very much a play in its own right.  Undeniably connected to the first “Laramie Project,” but at 90 minutes, it is a snapshot of a small American town that can stand on its own as a document and a theatrical experience.  The members of the Tectonic Theater Project are once again both narrators and characters within the play.  All the actors performed multiple roles, many times polar opposites of the characters they played just minutes before.  The company revisited and reinterviewed many of the subjects of the original play, to get their views on how things both had and hadn’t changed since Matthew’s death ten years before.  Many were still in Laramie, but some had left.  None of them were the same.  In addition, key players the company hadn’t had access to in the first place – primary among them Judy Shepard and Matthew’s killer Aaron McKinney – were willing to speak to them this time around.

“Ten years of change, no progress.”  That’s Judy Shepard quoting her husband Dennis.  Though a lot of hard work had been done, and was still being done, at the time the play was written, there was still no local (Wyoming) or national hate crimes legislation which had successfully passed.  In the fall of 2008, the faculty and staff at the college Matthew attended were still struggling to get domestic partner benefits on campus.  They succeeded just in time for the bottom to drop out of the economy, and for the implementation of those benefits to be put on hold until a more financially feasible time in the future.  A couple of generations of students had come and gone.  At first, some came to the college to walk in Matthew’s footsteps.  Now, though, students who come to Laramie to study barely know who he was.

Most unsettling was the way in which large parts of the community were trying to rewrite their own history.  A story on ABC’s TV newsmagazine “20/20” posited that Shepard’s murder wasn’t a hate crime but a robbery or drug deal gone wrong instead.  It had nothing to do with homosexuality.  Laramie latched onto that narrative as a way of distancing itself from being a negative example of a town where bigotry, and hatred of gays in particular, had a home.  All representatives of local law enforcement denounced the “20/20” story as not being backed up by the facts – both the facts of the investigation, and the evidence that was documented as part of the trial that followed.  But the culture of rumor was pervasive, and the allure of this revision of history continued to grow.  PBS had done a rebuttal of the “20/20” story point by point, but as one law officer put it, “Who watches PBS?”  A common refrain from one side of the issue, given wider circulation by the town’s newspaper editor, was that Laramie just wanted to move on.  The frustrated response kept coming back from other residents, “Where exactly do you want to move on to?”

The Laramie Boomerang’s editorial on the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death declared that “Laramie is a community, not a project.”  The editor didn’t see a need for events to mark the occasion.  They only reluctantly did some nominal coverage of the story.  The editorial remarked that a great many subscribers to the newspaper had asked that delivery of the paper be held off until the anniversary had passed so they wouldn’t have to read about it.  Still others wondered if the coverage could be less detailed, and displayed more discreetly.  Very few had asked for more coverage.  A letter to the editor in response implored fellow readers, “No, the crime doesn’t define us.  But how we react to the crime, how we talk about it, that does define us.”  The letter was never published.

But there was some progress.  Wyoming elected a woman who was its first openly gay member of the state legislature.  When a “defense of marriage” bill wanting to change the state constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman was put forward, it was shut down.  By the most powerful members of the conservative Republican leadership.  (This garnered some of the most enthusiastic applause of the evening from the Guthrie crowd.)  Also, gay people in town and on campus now realize that the cops are on their side, protecting them just like anyone else.

Aaron McKinney, the young man who beat Matthew to death, feels remorse, “but probably not the way people want me to.”  He feels badly that he isn’t living the way his dad would have wanted him to.  He also feels bad for Matthew Shepard’s dad.  He has more of a problem with Judy Shepard.  “She never shuts up about it.  It’s been ten years.”

Judy Shepard in the play admits, “I’m angrier now, because it’s still happening.  I haven’t accomplished anything yet.  But just doing the work was my survival.  It’s keeping Matthew with me all the time.”

The fence that Matthew Shepard was tied to the night he was beaten, the fence where he was left for dead, the fence where they found him – that fence has been taken down.  The parts of that fence have been incorporated into other fences.  No one knows where they are anymore.  

“We’re working hard. Just because you can’t see the change yet, doesn’t mean that the work isn’t happening.”

“Even in New York City you haven’t had the change you’re asking of us here.  How do we get this done?”

“Someone so small in stature sure made a big difference.”

Romaine Patterson, Matthew’s college friend who stood up in peaceful protest against the hateful picketing of Fred Phelps and his church, and won, had the words that closed out the evening.  The Matt she knew, and Matthew Shepard, were two completely different people.  Matt was her friend, part of very personal memories for her, and someone she keeps separate in her heart, to preserve the man she knew.  Matthew Shepard is much larger than that.  “It’s an important story – how it was told, and how it will continue to be told throughout the years.”

The Guthrie in Minneapolis was one of 150 theaters in 50 states and nine other countries which were all part of telling the next chapter of that story Monday night.

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