BY Bruce Shenitz
September 10 2009 8:00 AM ET
The fact that the interview took place at all is newsworthy. Under their separate sentencing agreements, both McKinney and his accomplice, Russell Henderson, were prohibited from speaking with the media -- a deal that unraveled in 2004, when ABC’s 20/20 interviewed McKinney in the course of a much-criticized segment that argued that the murder wasn’t a hate crime but a drug deal gone bad. “One of the things that I find very, very interesting is that in the theater we can have a gay man [Pierotti] going to interview Aaron McKinney,” Kaufman says. And it will be that same gay man creating the theatrical moments from those interviews that will be seen onstage.
Even without Epilogue and its online components, The Laramie Project has already developed a life of its own beyond the theater. Especially when it’s performed in high schools and colleges, it’s been used as a starting point for community discussions about hate crimes, homophobia, and gender identity. “I’m careful about saying this without trying to sound pompous or vain about our work, but I think that this play really does what theater is perhaps best suited to do, which is talk to a community about a community,” Kaufman says. “And I think people can relate to that.”
Part of the play’s afterlife has been that people portrayed in it -- including Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, who founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation with her husband, Dennis, and son, Logan -- have been invited to speak to communities where it’s been performed to discuss the issues it raises. (Another example of this theater–to–real life feedback loop can be found in the “God Hates Fags” Westboro Baptist Church, which demonstrated at Shepard’s funeral and is also portrayed in the play. Church members continue to protest many productions of the play around the country, which often brings home the reality of extremist hate to the communities where it’s produced.)
The Laramie Project deeply affects the lives of those who perform it or watch it. Acting in the play as an openly gay high school senior in Canton, Mass., is “one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” says T.J. Leuken, now a first-year student at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. In addition to the production itself, there were in-school discussion groups and a school assembly at which Leuken and five other students spoke about antigay prejudice. The Westboro Baptists showed up as planned, and Leuken was profoundly moved when he saw one of his close friends, a straight woman, crying as she watched the demonstration and a silent counterdemonstration. “It wasn’t just tough for people who were gay in school, it was tough for one of my [straight] friends,” he says. “One of the issues we brought up was, What if it wasn’t Laramie? What if it was here? What if it wasn’t Matthew? What if it was me? That was really powerful.”
It’s more than coincidence that for years one of the staples of community theater, including high school and college drama departments, was Thornton Wilder’s 1938 drama Our Town, a portrait of life in a fictional New Hampshire town told through the voices of its inhabitants. “We did in fact have Our Town very much in mind when we wrote The Laramie Project,” Kaufman says. “In the stage directions for the third act we state that it must be performed with several chairs on one side of the stage -- just like the dead people inhabit the third act of Our Town.”