The Laramie Project Epilogue – My experience

 

Matthew Shepard (Dec 1,1976-Oct 12,1998) , Adam Lederer Matthew Shepard
(Dec 1 1976 – Oct 12, 1998)

An Ingenious New Project:

An International Performance of

The Laramie Project Epilogue

by Barry Eitel

On Monday, October 12th, I witnessed a mixed group of Loyola and Northwestern students perform a staged reading of Tectonic Theatre Project’s newest effort—The Laramie Project Epilogue. The modest audience consisted of faculty and students of both universities as well as a few theatre professionals. In an innovative new take on theatre, however, we were one part of a giant machine. The coolest aspect of the whole evening was the fact that our group of performers and audience were electronically linked to 150 other theatres across the globe. On the anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s brutal death in 1998, thousands of people experienced Tectonic’s moving new piece and participated in a live dialogue with the creators and each other, a massive theatrical experiment.

Currently in the vanguard of docu-drama, Tectonic first hit major success early this decade with The Laramie Project. After the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wisconsin, whose killing is widely considered to be a hate crime, Moisés Kaufman and other members of Tectonic descended on the town of Laramie. They conducted loads of interviews investigating the effect the murder and the ensuing national attention had on the town. Tectonic compiled the interviews, news reports, company member’s personal journals, and other sources into the play. Thrusting issues of hate and community onto the stage like never before, The Laramie Project had a huge effect on audiences. It also cemented Tectonic’s rich docu-drama style that would lead to other successes like Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and the Pulitzer Prize winning I Am My Own Wife.

Flash forward almost a decade. The Laramie Project is now one of the most widely-produced plays in America, appearing in high schools, colleges, and professional theatres. In 2008, ten years after Matthew Shepard’s murder, Kaufman and Tectonic decided to do it all again, re-analyzing Laramie to see what had changed since their first visit. The results of their second visit comprise The Laramie Project Epilogue, which is far more than a cap topping the previous show. It is a complete play in itself. The new information reveals a different community, one that has grown and changed over time like a living organism.

The Tectonic folks discovered whole new topics to discuss and people to interview in their second visit. They learned about revisionist history that had taken hold: many interviewees believed that the killing was a straight robbery gone awry than a hate crime, a theory perpetuated by a 2004 20/20 report. Many company members were surprised to learn that the fence where Shepard was tied up, beaten, and left for dead had been removed. The epilogue exhibits the vibrant gay community now flowering at the University where Shepard attended 10 years earlier. It also showcases the UW faculty’s struggle to get domestic partner rights. And the play includes discussions with two important people who weren’t interviewed for the first Project, Shepard’s two murderers who are now serving multiple life sentences. Tectonic even felt ripples in the town caused by their previous work—an editorial in the town’s newspaper proclaimed that “Laramie is a Community, Not a Project.” All of this new information gives an interesting perspective that builds on what the first Project explored. The prejudices that Tectonic found 10 years later are far more subtle than the Reverend Fred Phelps picketing Shepard’s funeral. The play also has a much wider scope than the first play and focuses much more on Laramie at large, revealing a town conflicted by attempting to move on while trying to remember the past at the same time.

The goliath event pushed this broader scope idea even more. It was almost like a theatrical response to television—people all over the world watching the same thing at the same time. But after the show, everyone watching could participate in a group discussion. Through Twitter and a live feed, people all over were able to express their feelings and responses, from Midwest high school students to those present at the New York premier. A panel, including Kaufman and Shepard’s mother Judy Shepard, answered a few questions and told their experiences writing the piece. From all the audience responses, it was clear that the mass reading had a profound effect on everyone involved. The giant community Tectonic assembled was definitely the most exciting characteristic of the night. The experiment of forming a world-wide theatre for a few hours was a solid success.

 

Judy Shepard at press-conference after President Obama signs Hate Crimes bill.

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