Nine years ago, President Barack Obama signed a law making it a federal crime in the USA to assault a person based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The law was named in honour of two young men, one of whom was Matthew Shepard.
In 1998, 21-year-old Shepard was viciously attacked and left to die in a field near the town of Laramie, Wyoming and, several days later, died in hospital as a result of his injuries. It soon came to light that Shepard had been targeted as a result of his sexuality by two young men, both of whom are now spending the rest of their lives in prison.
Four weeks later, Moisés Kaufman, the founder of the Tectonic Theatre Project in New York City, and nine members of his group travelled to Laramie to conduct interviews with members of the 27,000-strong community. It was the first of several trips the group made to Laramie, concluding after the trial of the main perpetrator. Across that time, the Tectonic Theatre Project members interviewed over 200 people.
The content of those interviews was used to create The Laramie Project, a verbatim play first staged in May, 2000. Over two-and-a-half hours, a series of moments are woven together to present a snapshot of Laramie in the aftermath of Shepard’s death. This piece is an effort to understand the environment, the circumstances and the attitudes that facilitated a dreadful crime. Was what occurred a reflection on Laramie? Was it indicative of wider community sentiments across the country (and, even, the world)? At the same time, The Laramie Project speaks to the crucial conversation the crime generated and it highlights some of the gains made in the time that has followed.
The Laramie Project allows audiences to hear from a range of voices. There are Shepard’s friends, there’s the bartender at the Fireside Bar (where the perpetrators met Shepard), there’s the lead investigator on Shepard’s case, and there are also some of the religious leaders to whom the townsfolk turned for guidance after these events. There’s even an appearance by the odious Reverend Fred Phelps and his contemptable Westboro Baptist Church community who, just as they have done at funerals across the US for more than two decades, used Shepard’s death as a means of drawing attention to their toxic hate speech.
One of the final voices from whom we hear is Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, speaking in the courtroom before the sentencing of the main offender. It’s a heart-rending speech in which he explains the decision of he and his wife not to seek the death penalty for the offender, who had taken their own son’s life.
Ten years after first visiting Laramie, Kaufman and his theatre group returned to the town with the intention of creating a companion piece. That piece, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, follows the same non-linear verbatim structure as its predecessor and focuses on what changed in the town over the decade following the crime, how the story of Matthew Shepard’s death has been remembered by the community over time, and the longer term impact on the lives of some of those directly associated with those events. We hear from many of the same voices that appeared in The Laramie Project, but the second instalment is also coloured by interviews the group members had the opportunity to conduct with the two offenders (separately) in prison.
Part of the discussion in 10 Years Later concerns the differing versions of the attack to which members of the community subscribe. Differing narratives were fuelled by a US current affairs program which, in 2004, broadcast a piece advancing the spurious notion that Shepard’s attackers weren’t motivated by his sexual orientation – that the attack was a drug-related robbery gone awry. An interview with Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, is also incorporated into 10 Years Later. It offers an interesting insight into her own thoughts with respect to the extensive advocacy and campaigning she has been involved in the years since her son’s death. Of course, the integral questions at the centre of the piece are around the extent of progress in ensuring equality for LGBTQ persons and the work that remains to be done on that front.
The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later have returned to the Sydney stage in 2018 presented by Theatre Travels (a company in its infancy) and co-directed by Carly Fisher and Rosie Niven. Their thoughtful direction of each work ensures the characters and their words remain the sole focus of audience attention. An ensemble of nine actors (John Michael Burdon, Laura Djanegara, Andrew Hofman, Francisco Lopez, Linda Nicholls-Gidley, Matthew Pritchard, Dominique Purdue, Emily Richardson and Charlotte Tilelli) assume dozens of guises throughout the two shows, including members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, who provide some narration and commentary. There is a profound sense here of a cast that is wholly committed to the story and the overarching idea that further work to eradicate prejudice and intolerance is essential. It’s a talented group comprised of performers who show confidence in moving between frequently-contrasting characters. They draw us in and succeed in selling these characters, some of whom frustrate and anger us, while others evoke our deep sympathy.
The physical production, by set designer Dave Angelico, is simple but scaled appropriately to the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre stage. Angelico’s main set consists of a large wall, covering the length of the upstage area, constructed with painted wooden planks. The set, much like the issues canvassed within these shows, could be interpreted in different ways and is therefore an apt backdrop for proceedings. Martin Kinnane’s lighting choices effectively assist in both evoking and shifting mood.
Both The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later remain relevant, stimulating works that encourage necessary introspection and contemplation of the need to ensure that continued movement is forward, not backward.