The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later is a sequel to one of the most performed plays of the last decade, Tectonic Theatre’s The Laramie Project.
In 1998, a young gay student, Matthew Shepard, was brutally beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Just a month after the murder, members of the New York based Tectonic Theater Project arrived in Laramie and set about conducting a series of interviews that formed the basis of The Laramie Project .
Both plays – the first premiered in 2000, the sequel in 2009 – are what is known as verbatim theatre, a term used to describe a documentary play whose text uses the words of people interviewed about a particular topic. In this case this technique is used to investigate the ripple effect of a single, senseless murder. In the case of The LaramieProject and its sequel, this involved hundreds of interviews. In the second play, these include conversations with the two convicted killers who received life sentences.
Moises Kaufman, Tectonic’s founder and co-writer of both pieces, says the impact of the first play, with its examination of a hate crime based on homophobia, continues to reverberate more than a decade after its debut. "The people of Laramie were very bruised by the murder," he says. "They didn’t want to think that something like that could happen in their town and they didn’t want the notoriety that came with the media circus and the play."
The Laramie Project – 10 years Later is partly based on attempts in the town to rewrite history to clean up Laramie’s image. Local stories reframed the crime as a bungled robbery or a drugs deal gone wrong as opposed to what it actually was – a hate crime. Kaufman says: "Both versions had the effect of reducing the horror and making Shepard complicit in his own fate, even though there is no evidence that drugs were being sought or dealt."
These are sentiments echoed by police officer Reggie Fluty who was present when Shepard was found severely beaten and tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie. "It’s bullshit," she says. "You could get a sense or feel for what happened there and someone was violently angry. This was not just a robbery."
Kaufman, as a gay man, a Jew and a Venezuelan who moved to the US as an adult is adept at recognizing prejudice. " To see the hate crimes committed in Laramie as typical of small-town bigotry is way off the mark," he says. "The media portrayed the town as full of rednecks and hillbillies. The inference was, ‘Of course it could happen there, but never where we’re from.’ In fact it’s shocking how similar Laramie is to the rest of the US. As a nation we are in the middle of a conversation regarding civil rights and social justice, a civil war."
Red Stitch director, Gary Abrahams, has similar feelings on the subject and says: "’The play was produced around the world and certainly played a part in forming Laramie’s backward and red-neck reputation. That turns things on their head and the theatre-makers are trying to get to whatever the truth is. Laramie’s identity changed radically when Shepard was murdered. The first play had a big role in that construction of identity and now this work is all about how history and truth are constructed."
Ten years later and citizens of Laramie have had much to reflect on about he repercussions of Shepards murder. On the topic retired police woman Fluty had this to say: "We made people stand up and own what they were thinking and that’s huge. We are ashamed of what happened here and that’s hard to stand up and say we made a mistake."
It seems that Laramie is a town undergoing the 6 stages of dying: grieving, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Going back to Laramie, Kaufman found that, on the surface, things had changed; the university had a scholarship program in Shepard’s name, the town had an AIDS walk, people watch what they say. But, for most, it is upsetting and difficult to understand why there is still no hate crime legislation in Wyoming. Some feel that the legislation would have been passed by now if sexual orientation was not part of it. But many of the same attitudes prevailed.
Given the politics involved in its telling Kaufman is adamant that his work is nothing more than a work of drama. "I’d just like to call it art, as art is in a higher domain and can address all things, things of the spirit as well as social and educational topics. The purpose of art is to connect us to our humanity."
Kaufman approached Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors Theatre, which read it at Federation Square about 18 months ago as part of a synchronized worldwide play reading. The decision to produce the play has certainly created some challenges as director Abrahams clarifies: "Staging is difficult because the script’s documentary style presents unique difficulties. It is as if the ideal way to produce it with all 47 characters is as a fancy performed reading, but I plan to use it as an opportunity to explore theatre-making techniques. I want to show how we construct theatre. Since this is about the re-construction of an actual event, we are making the moments of construction obvious to the audience. This play is more about how truth is fluid and facts are never as solid as we think they are."
The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is at Red Stitch Actors Theatre, St Kilda, April 27-May 28.