Another Look at Laramie
Ten years later or 100 years later, the murder of Matthew Shepard and The Laramie Project will remain relevant
When Matthew Shepard met the two men in a bar who would eventually murder him, the promise of companionship, sex or both blinded him to potential danger and what became his eventual fate: kidnapping, robbery, a brutal pistol-whipping that crushed his skull and a lonely night in near-freezing temperatures tied to a fence under the Wyoming stars.
The details of his torture and eventual death in a Colorado hospital a few days later repulsed caring people the world over, as Shepard’s youth and angelic good looks made him a gay martyr, both frightening and galvanizing LGBT communities to call for immediate action against hate crimes.
Playwright/director Moises Kaufman, the artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, along with other members of the theater company, went to Laramie, Wyoming, to research the 1998 murder and the reactions of the townspeople for the year following. The resulting piece, based on hundreds of interviews, was The Laramie Project, which opened in 2000 and went on to become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S., with an all-star HBO film following in 2002.
In June 2008, Tectonic returned to Laramie to find out if anything had changed in the 10 years since Shepard’s death. Most obvious was the systematic erasure of two key monuments: The bar where the killers met their victim had been sold and renamed, and the bloody fence Shepard was hung on was removed and disposed of by the property owner. Far worse, the crime was now considered by many townspeople just a robbery that turned violent because people were high and that it had nothing to do with Shepard’s queerness—despite killer Aaron McKinney’s confession he’d beaten Shepard because the young man had put his hand on McKinney’s leg.
The idea that a town uncomfortable with its history can just wish that history away, as well as the fleeting victories and decade-long losses for the gay people in the town, supply the backdrop for The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. This epilogue, which also includes new interviews with McKinney and Shepard’s civil-rights-activist mother, Judy, will be published in future versions of the script, but it will also be presented in a mass reading in more than 120 theaters worldwide—including all 50 states and seven countries—on Oct. 12, the 11th anniversary of Shepard’s death.
Locally, Fullerton College is hosting three performances on Oct. 12 that are free to the public.
A little way down the 5 freeway, La Jolla Playhouse is presenting a benefit reading that allows you to put your money where your mouth is and, at the same time, see Southern California celebrities and community leaders, with a cast featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, Mare Winningham, Robert Foxworth, Amanda Naughton, James Newcomb, Stark Sands, T. Ryder Smith and James Sutorius, among others. Proceeds from the evening’s ticket sales benefit the Hillcrest Youth Center, a drop-in center serving LGBTQ youth, a program operated under the auspices of the San Diego LGBT Community Center.
I interviewed the Old Globe’s resident artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, via e-mail as he was preparing to direct the La Jolla reading and asked if he’d seen the original production of The Laramie Project when it played in his town several years back.
“I did not even read the script until a few years after it came out,” Tresnjak says. “At the time that the original production came out, I was still so upset and angry about the death of Matthew Shepard—I could not bring myself to go and see the play.”
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Tresnjak doesn’t think the decade time gap has done anything to lessen the relevance of the work or the crime itself. “People should be interested in this story a hundred years from now,” he says. “Matthew Shepard should not be forgotten. . . . More specifically, this epilogue is fascinating because we see how a community deals with a part of its dark legacy a decade later. We see both growth and denial. I find the new script both inspiring and frightening.
“La Jolla Playhouse saw this as a chance to bring together many people from the San Diego theater community,” he adds. “The reading will take place in the Forum Theatre. The space, with its curved seating, will give it a feeling of a town-hall meeting.”
He also thinks the epilogue comes at a crucial juncture in U.S, history. “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, like the original play, is as much about the United States and where we are as a culture today as it is about the town of Laramie,” he says. “It looks at the state of gay rights in America. . . . The subject matter is especially personal to those of us who are living in California in the wake of Proposition 8.”
The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later at Fullerton College’s Campus Theatre, 321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton, (714) 992-7150; theatre.fullcoll.edu. Mon., 9 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. Free; also at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Dr., La Jolla, (858) 550-1010; www.lajollaplayhouse.com. Mon., 8 p.m. $15.