BY Bruce Shenitz
September 10 2009 8:00 AM ET
At first it sounded like the premise for a bizarro-world reality show: Nine New York City actors, several of them gay, journey to Laramie, Wyo., just five weeks after the most notorious antigay crime in memory, the murder of Matthew Shepard. Their goal was to interview townspeople and write a play about the events of that October 1998. Two hundred interviews and a year and a half later, those accounts were melded to create The Laramie Project, “a play that portrays a town in turmoil,” says Moisés Kaufman, founder and artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, the company that created the play.
Since its debut in Denver in 2000, the work has become one of the most-performed plays in high schools, colleges, and amateur theater groups, displacing such classics as You Can’t Take It With You and Arsenic and Old Lace. It has been produced some 2,200 times and was adapted into an HBO film, exposing millions more to the story.
Last fall, as the 10th anniversary of Shepard’s murder approached, Kaufman wondered aloud if there was something to be gained by going back to Laramie -- to see what, if anything, had changed in the past decade. The company members immediately signed on to the idea and, as they had in preparing the original play, flew to Wyoming and worked as a group to conduct interviews and develop the material into The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (An Epilogue). The play will be staged on October 12 -- the 11th anniversary of Shepard’s death -- simultaneously at more than a hundred theaters worldwide, including at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, where Tectonic Theater Project will perform. These performances will be accompanied by a national live online discussion where participants can blog, upload video and photos, and share stories about the play. Kaufman has said that by opening a play at different theaters on the same night, he is following in the footsteps of the Federal Theater Project, the New Deal–era program designed to employ out-of-work artists, writers, and directors and through which Sinclair Lewis’s play It Can’t Happen Here was produced simultaneously in 22 cities in 1936.
Like the original Laramie Project, Epilogue is a highly collaborative work, with Kaufman sharing writing credit with Greg Pierotti, Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris, and Steven Belber -- all members of the Tectonic Theater Project, which he cofounded in 1991. (Kaufman is now artistic director of the theater, whose best-known productions include Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and I Am My Own Wife.) When the group returned to Wyoming in September 2008, it became clear that the work they’d completed there 10 years earlier had become an enduring part of their lives. “We’ve all stayed connected to The Laramie Project by visiting universities and talking to high schools and kind of extensively teaching and speaking around this,” Fondakowski says. Moreover, Pierotti adds, “each of us, as we were doing the research for the original piece, established strong relationships with particular members of the community…. Each of us has maintained those relationships, so that was all alive and well when we were ready to come back.”
The depth of those relationships led to what promises to be one of the most provocative parts of Epilogue: material based on Pierotti’s interviews with one of Matthew Shepard’s murderers, Aaron McKinney. Those interviews came about because of Pierotti’s ongoing relationship with Father Roger Schmit, who was McKinney’s spiritual adviser when he was in prison awaiting his trial. After Schmit wrote a strong letter of recommendation for Pierotti to McKinney, he agreed to an interview in prison.
When Kaufman, Pierotti, Fondakowski, and Paris first met with The Advocate to discuss Epilogue, they were just two days away from the first reading of the new play but still in the midst of writing and rewriting. They were reluctant to say much about the conversations with McKinney and how they would figure in the play. “I spent 10 hours with Aaron,” Pierotti says, “and the scenes that I’ve made are trying to present the entire context of this conversation and not just a few sensational lines.”