In November 1998, when members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York City to Laramie, Wyo., to interview residents about the impact of gay college student Matthew Shepard’s murder, they had no idea what the impact of their work would be.
“When we first went to Laramie, we didn’t go with the idea that we were going to write a play,” says Tectonic member Leigh Fondakowski. Instead, she says, they simply wanted to see if theater artists had a role to play in the situation surrounding Shepard’s death. But over the course of that and six subsequent trips to Laramie during the following year, they found out that their role was to create a play — and that play, The Laramie Project, has become one of the most frequently performed works in the U.S., with nearly 200 productions in the past year alone. “The fact that it had a life beyond us was really shocking,” she says.
Now Tectonic is bringing The Laramie Project, which premiered in 2000, and its 2009 follow-up, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, back to New York for a run that opens tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The production, under the umbrella title The Laramie Project Cycle, marks the first time both plays have been done together in New York with a majority of the original company, says Moisés Kaufman, Tectonic’s founder–artistic director and the codirector (with Fondakowski) and cowriter (with her and other Tectonic members) of both plays. The plays will be performed in repertory through February 24, with “marathons” encompassing both works the next two weekends. There’s also a talk Saturday by Kaufman and Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, to be moderated by NPR reporter Neda Ulaby, and a series of educational workshops connected with the show.
The theater company based the plays on hundreds of interviews with Laramie residents — including police officers, University of Wyoming faculty members, shopkeepers, bartenders, and one of Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney — and others connected with Shepard, such as his mother and an administrator at the Colorado hospital where Matthew died October 12, 1998, six days after he was beaten by McKinney and Russell Henderson and left for dead on a fence on the outskirts of Laramie.
“In writing the plays, we really tried to capture a snapshot of where the nation was at the end of the millennium,” Kaufman says. In dealing with a crime that put antigay hate crimes in the national consciousness, they address issues of sexuality, gender, class, “all of the kind of fault lines that are hurting our culture,” he says.
They also look at how stories are told, and, in the case of Ten Years Later, based on interviews Tectonic members conducted in 2008, at how they are retold. “A lot of people in Laramie are trying to change the narrative,” says Kaufman. Instead of seeing Shepard’s murder as one based on antigay bigotry, some people are saying it grew out of a robbery or drug deal; part of the reason, he says, is that some Laramie residents resent the fact that their city is known as the site of a hate crime. “There’s an effort to rewrite history,” he says, but the plays “forcefully rebut those rumors.”