The Laramie Project and Awareness

moises k Moises Kaufman, playwright and director

In 1998, a 21-year-old Wyoming student was beaten, robbed, and tied to a fence post on the outside of town. This was all because he was gay and made advances towards two heterosexual men. This brought the Tectonic Theatre Project to Laramie, Wyoming to conduct interviews on how the town was handling this tragic event and the resulting publicity. Moisés Kaufman and other members of the project collected more than 200 interviews and compiled them into a play called “The Laramie Project.” According to Kaufman, “The reason why the play is called The Laramie Project and not The Matthew Shepard Project is because I was really, really interested in how the people of Laramie were responding, about the historical event that happened as a result of the murder.”(2)  This play was much more about the fact that Matthew was murdered, it was about the reason behind the event and because of that, this “pioneering and a powerful stage event” brought awareness to homophobia (7).

Many of the inhabitants of Laramie were not pleased with the Tectonic Theatre Project showing up. Rebecca Hilliker, the Project’s first contact in Laramie said “You just kicked me in the stomach, why are you doing this to me?” when she found out that the Project was going to go to Laramie (4). Many residents thought that they were going to be forever labeled as a homophobic community. Therefore, not only was all of the media that came to Laramie forced to analyze stands on homophobia, but the inhabitants of Laramie were forced to think about it as well. However, once the team was there, it seemed that many people opened up to explain that Laramie really was a beautiful place to live, and that the people of Laramie were not like the two men that murdered Matthew Shepard. There were residents from every aspect of what happened (Matt’s personal life, the bar the night of the murder, the hospital, the trial, etc) who were interviewed. The play is written in moments, not in scenes. There are moments of interviews, and moments interrupt each other. An interviewer from “Matthew’s Place” commented “the writing style of The Laramie Project, is concerned with the ripples [of an event] — the effect on the community” meaning that everything builds to the climax through the escalation of individual moments as opposed to interviews on the whole, one after another (5). This is how Kaufman meant for the play to be written, as evidence when he was quoted “Can we talk to the people of the town and gather a document that would operate like the transcripts of [a] trial” (7). He went on to say “a document that would, in fact, record not only how the people of Laramie felt about sexuality, sexual orientation, and hate—but how they felt about … education, how they felt about violence, how they felt about what we’re teaching our children?” (2). The play attempted to accomplish a great deal and to bring awareness.

The Tectonic Theatre Project brought awareness through the Laramie situation. The play that they created was a narrative and they recreated the interviews and moments of real people in order to make the themes of hatred, judgment, and homophobia more real. Kaufman thought that “One of the things that theater can do is provide narratives that bring us together. Theater can provide narratives that show us what the kind of iconic events of our history are.”(2). This piece of the theatre certainly does exactly what Kaufman said. This play is still one of the most performed plays in the country (it was the second-most-produced play of the 2001-02 season), and from this, Matthew Shepard’s story has been more greatly spread and has been the opening for lines of communication (6). The people of Laramie could get their feelings out in a way that not many news interviews could get because the play spent a great deal more time interviewing the same people on a personal level. All of the media attention that the Matthew Shepard case got, of which there is a record in the play, created international awareness of the hate crimes that still occur. Matthew Shepard’s murder truly was a moment that changed America, as can be seen from moments in the play such as the Westboro Baptist church protests and the walk for Matthew during the Homecoming Parade in Laramie. After these events, it all became bigger than Matthew. Kaufman said that “The reason why the play is called The Laramie Project and not The Matthew Shepard Project is because I was really, really interested in how the people of Laramie were responding, about the historical event that happened as a result of the murder.” (2). This play is about how people reacted to not only homophobia, but also to the violence, and thoughts about class, that came along with homophobia.

“The Laramie Project” opened in the Denver Theater Center in March of 2000, and went immediately to New York for an Off Broadway run (6). Going from Denver to New York in less than a year is quite a lot of progression for a play. When it went to New York, it opened near largely gay communities of New York, such as Chelsea and Greenwich (1). The play has been very largely accepted by the theater community. This play has never lost momentum, and has expanded to other countries, including England and Germany (6). Members of the Tectonic Theatre Project starred in the production and the play was made into an HBO movie, also written and directed by Kaufman. The play has expanded to many places.

The play brings to light so many events that would otherwise have never been known about. A lot of what the resident of Laramie thought would have been kept to themselves and not put in the ear of the public and would not have made the public think the way that the play does. The play truly is about homosexuality and homophobia because it is the center of everything that happened. What is truly awful and what helps the play the hit home is the fact that the murder was committed by children of the town. They were raised by parents who knew everyone in the small town. This play, and other plays like it heightens the sensitivity to issues such as these (6). The play is about why Matthew was murdered, and that reason was ‘gay panic’ not a robbery-gone-bad. So many people, including celebrities like Ellen Degreneres and many, many students have been empowered by people like Matthew Shepard and the community that backed him up. His mother has also been an amazing spokesperson for the gay community. She was a part of the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Act, which was enacted in 2009 and “a new federal criminal law which criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury”(3). Judy Shepard has also become an ally of the Tectonic Theatre Project and “The Laramie Project.” “The Tectonic Theater Project was able to go to the White House when it was signed. In a way, it was partially because we had been following this narrative so long that we needed to be at the White House when it was being signed. It took 10 years to get that legislation passed [after Shepard’s murder].” This is the change that Kaufman and his coworkers wanted to see all along. However, people have opened up, spoken out, and found new ways to unite.

Sources

1. Buck, Andy. “The Laramie Project – Reviews – May 19, 2000.” Theatermania. TheaterMania.com, 19 May 2000. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.theatermania.com/new-york-city-theater/reviews /05-2000/the-laramie-project_707.html>.

2. Freeman, Matt, Nicole Kempskie, and Scott Barrow. “The Laramie Project.” Reading. BAM Education. BAM Harvey Theatre, 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.bam.org/media/1497078/laramie_project.pdf&gt;.

3. Holder, Jr., Eric H. “Civil Rights Division Home Page.” Civil Rights Division Home Page. Dept. of Justice, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2013. <http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/crm/matthewshepard.php&gt;.

4. Kaufman, Moisés. “Moment: Rebecca Hilliker.” The Laramie Project. New York: Vintage, 2001. 11. Print.

5. Neil, Lauren. “Matthew’s Place.” Matthews Place TECTONIC THEATER PROJECT Comments. Matthew’s Place, 1 Oct. 2009. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <http://www.matthewsplace.com/voice/tectonic-theater- project/>.

6. Shewey, Don. “THEATER; A Play Has a Second Life as a Stage for Discussion.”Nytimes.com. New York Times, 1 Dec. 2002. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/01/theater/theater-a-play- has-a-second-life-as-a-stagefordiscussion.html?n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Subjects/ T/Theater &pagewanted=1>.

7. “THE LARAMIE PROJECT CYCLE.” Tectonic Theater Project. Starving Artist Web Design, n.d. Web. 9 Oct. 2013. <http://tectonictheaterproject.org/ttp-plays/record-of-success/the-laramie-cycle/&gt;.

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