The growing polarization over LGBTQ issues both regionally and nationally made the play The Laramie Project – which explores the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard – particularly poignant. Debuting Oct. 26 at the Clayton Center for the Arts, the play is both a powerful narrative and a way of using theater to foster conversation and reflection, said Andy Vaught, director and visiting lecturer in theatre at Maryville College.
It’s also the 25th anniversary of Shepard’s murder, Vaught added, which makes it even more serendipitous.
On Oct. 6, 1998, Shepard was approached by two men at a Laramie, Wyoming, bar who offered to give him a ride home. They instead drove him to a remote area where they robbed, beat and tortured him before tying him to a split-rail fence and leaving him. He was found 18 hours later by a cyclist who at first mistook him for a scarecrow. After six days in a hospital, he never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead on October 12 at age 21.
The men were found guilty of first-degree murder and given consecutive life sentences, but Shepard’s sexuality as a gay man, and the absence of specific hate crime legislation at the time, received extensive media coverage and inspired The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project.
An example of documentary theater, the play is built from dozens of interviews conducted by members of the theater company with residents of Laramie, along with published news reports. Featuring more than 60 characters in a series of short scenes, it’s a powerful snapshot of the way the tragedy affected those who considered their community a bucolic Western mountain town, and one of the most fascinating elements, Vaught said, is the absence of Shepard himself.
“Matthew Shepard is not a character, and his absence only increases his stature,” he said. “The play itself is a lot of talking and the processing of the event, which is one reason it’s so effective. Talking about these things can be really painful, and the almost clinical nature of this play is deceitful, because it doesn’t spare you.
“… this play has 63 parts and 29 cast members. It allowed me to open it up in a really special way and talk about how a community deals with this tragedy.
“We had our first read-through the other night, and people were crying at the end of it. It’s a very powerful play, and it gives people a chance to be themselves on stage. That’s really important, because I’m not asking anyone to assume a role, even the students who play the perpetrators. “There’s a distance between themselves and their roles, because I have to make sure everyone is comfortable throughout the process – reading it, impacting it and staging it.”
The Laramie Project will be staged at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 26-28 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29, in the Haslam Family Flexible Theatre of the Clayton Center for the Arts. Admission is free, and the public is invited.
Steve Wildsmith, assistant director of communications at Maryville College, provided information and quotes for this story.