On October 6, 1998, a young man was found tied to a fence in the Wyoming countryside. He had been beaten within inches of his life and left there to die, all because he was gay. Matthew Shepard was still breathing when he was found the next morning, and remained on life support until he died on October 12, 1998. The unusual, pristine nature of the crime scene lead to the quick arrests of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who eventually pled guilty to the crime, citing “gay panic,” or temporary insanity caused by a fear of sexual advances from a gay person, as their defense.
The murder and subsequent trials gained national attention from celebrities, politicians, and news media. When the media descended on the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, “all dialogue stopped” (Laramie 11). It was as the case gained national attention that Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie on six different occasions to interview the residents of the town. They interviewed over 200 of the town’s residents – priests and pastors, ranchers, townspeople, friends of the victim and the accused, policemen and women who were on the case, the doctors who attended to Matthew Shepard, etc. The direct transcripts from these interviews, as well as journal entries and experiences of the actors themselves came together in the amazingly powerful play, The Laramie Project.
The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project out in New York is one of my all-time favorite plays. And seeing as I was the drama director at my old school, that’s saying quite a lot; I read A LOT of plays in my time there, but Laramie is one that definitely stood out.
If you haven’t read it, you should. Now. It’s a quick read; you could probably finish it in an hour. Or go rent it! HBO teamed up with the Tectonic Theater Project a little while ago to make a screen version of the play, and it is phenomenal, too.
A little bit about Laramie for those of you who haven’t read or seen it (from a paper I wrote about it last year):
If that isn’t enough to entice you to read it, I don’t know what is.
But, my real reason for writing today about Laramie is because of one of my former students. As I said above, I was the drama director at my old school for some time, and as the drama director, I worked with all sorts of students, and sensed the need to bring this play to the school and the community. I hoped it would create a dialogue about my students’ lives that had been almost hidden until this point. So I went to the principal of the school for approval and she granted it to me. My students were so excited. We cast the play before winter break and came back ready to go.
On the day we were to start our first rehearsals, the principal came into my room and informed me of the school board’s last minute decision to unapprove the play.
Now, keep in mind that this was a rural-ish school district, and a very conservative community. I do not blame them for their decision at all, and I truly would like to believe that they had the students’ safety and best interests in mind. But we were all heartbroken. It was with tears in my eyes that I delivered the news to my students that first day of rehearsal. And it changed them. I saw them become disheartened and disappointed. I saw them feel personally rejected, because this play spoke so deeply to so many of them. But here’s the silver lining: I saw the activists start to come out in all of them. Some went to the superintendent. Some went to teachers. Some had their parents call to voice their disappointment. Some researched other venues for us to produce the play. None of it panned out, unfortunately, but the important point was that they didn’t give up, and I could not have been more proud. Since then, all of the students have graduated high school and moved on to bigger and better things, but I believe that experience has stayed with them in both good and bad ways, and I believe that it has made them better able to stand up for what they truly believe.
Yesterday, Collin, one of the students who was originally cast in the play, called me and left a very excited voicemail that he had been cast in his college’s production of Laramie. His voice was almost shaking with excitement – as well it should have been – and it was again with tears in my eyes that I called him back to offer my congratulations (except these were good tears). We talked for a little bit about the play and his auditions and all of that before he asked me if it would be a good idea to send invitations to the play to the school board of our former school.
Just when I thought I couldn’t be more proud, I was.
The production will be touring the weekend of Valentine’s Day with a stop in Chicago, so if you want more information, please let me know.