On October 6, 1998, 21-year-old student Matthew Shepard was beaten by two men because of his sexuality and left to die just outside the US town of Laramie in the state of Wyoming. Six days later, he died in hospital.
Co-director Rosie Niven describes what happened to Shepard as an event that gripped not only the US, but the world.
“Many of my friends and family remember seeing his story plastered across the news outlets, as well as the protests and candlelight vigils that were held throughout the United States,” Niven tells Theatre People. “This violent homophobic attack was a pivotal point in LGBTQI activism, and one of the most well-known cases of perpetrators of violence attempting to use the gay panic defence,” referring to cases in which the accused claims they acted in a state of violent temporary insanity in response to an unwanted same-sex sexual advance.
But while the murder shocked the globe, it also led to the formation of a movement, driven by Shepard’s parents, aimed at protecting the LGBTQI community.
“Judy and Dennis Shepard chose to do something positive with their grief, and started the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The Foundation has helped thousands of families understand how to create a safe space for their LGBTQI children, as well as providing facilities for homeless LGBTQI youth. The Foundation is also one of the driving forces behind the instigation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act – legislation that helps protect victims of hate crimes, rather than ostracise them after attacks. Matthew’s legacy continues to be a huge part of the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQI community.”
One month after the murder, members of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project (including founder, Moisés Kaufman) travelled to Laramie and conducted over 400 interviews with over 100 residents of the town. The interviews formed the basis of The Laramie Project, a Verbatim theatre piece set to be staged at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in late November.
“All of these words are raw, honest and real and, in turn, the characters offer the same to their audiences,” says co-director Carly Fisher. “There is an authenticity to Verbatim theatre that captures the exact thoughts and opinions from the time in a way that would have been completely lost without a mode like Verbatim, especially when you consider how much of the data captured for, for example, a TV show may be to serve a particular angle of a story. What the Tectonic Team did was to instead go in hoping for examples of a wide range of opinions and thoughts. They knew that not only would that diversity in opinions make for better theatre, but it would also present Laramie and the time following this crime with a much greater sense of accuracy.”
Niven adds: “Interviewing the people of Laramie, with their wide range of opinions on Matthew and his sexual orientation, … allows us to use Laramie as a case study to examine exactly why something like this would happen, and how a town’s behaviours and attitudes could breed people that would cause this much harm to another human being. We have to let Laramie teach us, so that we can stop violence like this happening.”
Niven also reminds us that this is not just a story of times gone by.
“Violence against the LGBTQI community is still present, especially for the non-white and transgender members. I have seen it with my own eyes on the streets of Sydney, and we cannot keep telling ourselves that this is a small town problem, or this is a 1998 problem.”
Fisher says the story of Matthew Shepard is a story of something that could have happened anywhere to anyone.
“This was an ordinary day, in an ordinary town and what happened, happened to an ordinary boy,” she explains. “To me, it’s a reminder of our need to stay aware … in the way we approach situations and perhaps, as in this case, sometimes other people.
“But it’s also really a story that calls on us to re-evaluate not just our attitudes, but our resilience. I believe that the town of Laramie reacted and responded in exactly the same way that any other community would have – there were mixed opinions – particularly when it came to Matthew’s sexuality and what being gay still meant in the 1990s – and there were moments of overwhelming support for Matthew, for his family and for those involved in the case, and then moments of isolation and loneliness as is often the case in moments of grief.”
Fisher has read The Laramie Project at least once a year since studying the play in high school.
“It’s a play that has always stuck with me,” she says. “I decided to read it again most recently whilst we were in the midst of the Plebiscite debate and I was really trying to consider a response to what was happening around us and the hurt that I was seeing my friends and family members who are part of the LGBTQI community experience.
“As soon as I began and remembered that it was 1998 and that this year would therefore be the 20th anniversary, compounded with the fact that I really wanted to use my platform as a theatre maker to tell a story that I believed was relevant, important and, more than anything, necessary, I knew I had to finally bring this play back to the Sydney stages.”
In 2008, members of Tectonic Theatre Project went back to Laramie, interviewing and re-interviewing members of the community. It’s a visit that resulted in a follow up piece, entitled The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.
“Moisés Kaufman often speaks about his fascination with stories and how we choose to use them,” Niven says.
“One such point of view that came about in 2004 was that of ABC news magazine 20/20, who attempted to prove that Matthew’s murder was about methamphetamines rather than his sexuality. 20/20 claimed that Matthew was a dealer, and that murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were fuelled simply by drugs.
“Kaufman believes that this journalism was poorly researched and completely changed the nature of the dialogue surrounding Matthew Shepard, so one of his goals was to return to Laramie to remove any doubt that this was anything other than a hate crime. In addition to debunking 20/20, Kaufman and Tectonic Theatre Project wanted to return to Laramie and examine what had changed over the 10 years since Matthew’s death. By returning to Laramie, we get a much better look at human behaviour throughout history and a greater understanding of how far we still have to go.”
Sydney audiences will have the opportunity to see both The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later presented within the one season. Co-directed by Niven and Fisher, the productions will be staged at the Seymour Centre by new company Theatre Travels.
“This is the first production for the company and I am really proud of the fact that we have started with a work of such magnitude and importance,” Fisher says. “Two shows, nine actors, 12 performances, 75 characters … this is no small undertaking for a new company. However, I’d do nothing differently. This show has been such a journey to be on – a true rollercoaster – and I’m absolutely loving it!
So, what’s the biggest challenge in trying to stage both pieces together as part of a single run?
“There’s the obvious challenge of time,” Niven says. “We’re trying to fit two shows into one rehearsal block, so making sure we stick to the schedule when we want to dwell on a particular scene can be difficult.”
She continues: “The challenge for the actors is the characterisation, because many of their characters in The Laramie Project return for The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, so they have to have an understanding of what has happened with each character over that 10-year period. For some of them it’s small changes, but for others it’s a complete change of heart, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there.”
Fisher is excited to have the opportunity to tell the whole story.
“It is rare in theatre that we get to cut forward 10 years and re-meet characters that long after the event, who have genuinely had a change of mind or heart … or not,” she says. “Even in theatre, often where we do jump in the timeline, there isn’t always that opportunity to really witness that change because often characters are there to act as vehicles to get across a particular point. That is the opposite of what the Tectonic Theatre Project is aiming for here; they went back to Laramie completely unsure of what they may find 10 years later. And that is what we get to see – the genuine products of 10 years’ time difference.
“I’m really proud that we are going to be the first Sydney-based company bringing the shows to the stage together and taking on that challenge so as to tell the whole story as we know it today.”
THE LARAMIE PROJECT
THE LARAMIE PROJECT: 10 YEARS LATER – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: November 28 – December 8, 2018
Venue: Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre (Corner of City Road and Cleveland Street, Chippendale)
Tickets: Phone the box office on (02) 9351 7940 or click here to book online