On the Road With Laramie
BY Advocate Contributors
August 10 2010 7:55 PM ET
After two and half years of research, writing, and exploration in the studio, we opened at the Denver Center (pictured above). We knew we wanted the world premiere there because they are the professional theater closest to Laramie. It’s about a two hour drive. Subsequently, we moved the show to New York, and later went on to perform it at Berkeley Repertory Theater and La Jolla Playhouse. We also adapted it into an Emmy nominated teleplay for HBO filmed on location in Laramie and Denver, Colorado. We also performed the play several times in Laramie.
One performance was for high school students who had gathered from all over the state for a Wyoming State high school theater competition. At the point in the play where I announce that Matthew Shepard has died, this entire group of kids let out a communal wail that I could literally feel in my body. It completely stopped the show. My fellow actors started crying, I started crying, the kids were crying. We all just cried together. Then we went on. It was the most intense theatrical experience of my career.
Since its initial success, The Laramie Project has become one of the most performed plays in America. There have been many fine professional productions of the play, of course, but for me the most exciting performances are the ones I see in high schools. What’s so moving about these productions is not Matthew’s story alone. These students are so unguarded in the expression of their outrage in the face of injustice. Of course, I am so moved by the LGBTQ students, who so deeply identify with Matthew and give their all to do justice to the story. Equally moving to me, though, is watching straight students grappling with the magnitude of the hatred that queer people face, often for the first time. Many of these kids begin to rethink their own behavior and language because of their contact with the play and Matt’s story. Kids form GSA’s after they do our play. They fight for the rights of queer people in their communities. They become activists. One group of young women in California were forbidden to produce the play in their conservative school, so they did a fundraiser and produced it themselves. Their production was a massive hit in their town. Leigh refers to them as “the power lesbians.”
In the summer of 2008, as the ten year anniversary of Matt’s murder approached, Moises challenged the company with another radical idea. Could we write a short piece that followed up with the community and asked how the town had (or hadn’t) changed over the last ten years. Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris, Stephen Belber and I returned to Laramie with Moises to begin work on what we intended to be a short epilogue to The Laramie Project. During the course of our work I was able to speak extensively with Matt’s killer, Aaron McKinney, and Stephen Belber spoke with his accomplice, Russell Henderson. Looking at those interviews and our conversations with the people in Laramie, it became clear that this story was far too complex to tell in a short epilogue. So we wrote a second full length play, called Laramie: 10 Years Later.