Ten years after the killing of gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, a local theatre company is staging a production of The Laramie Project that invokes essential dialogue about how far gay rights have come and how far the movement still has left to go.
Moises Kaufman’s play, performed by Fighting Chance Productions, is based on the gaybashing of Shepard, who was brutally beaten Oct 12, 1998 by two young men and tied to a fence before being discovered by a passing cyclist. He died in hospital five days later.
The play sheds insight into the life and death of Shepard through a patchwork of voices in his community, from the residents who knew him well to those whose contact with him was fleeting.
Each actor plays at least six roles, allowing for dozens of nuanced viewpoints. Props are minimal and movement is subtle, allowing the words to take centre stage. The production is also supplemented by original music written by the cast.
It’s a powerful, emotionally charged portrait of a town whose life was ripped apart by the death of one of its own, and reveals how people who express hate and intolerance are not always the backward caricatures we assume them to be.
With the recent gaybashing of Jordan Smith in the West End and the passing of Proposition 8 rescinding gay marriage in California, the play’s themes of prejudice, homophobia and fear are as just as relevant today as they were when the play was first staged.
“I read this play for the first time six or seven years ago and it always resonated with me,” says the play’s director, Ryan Mooney. “There are plays out there that were groundbreaking when they were written, but now when you perform them they’re really aged. This is a play that has aged really well, and it’s even more open for discussion now.”
During rehearsals, both the director and the production’s actors struggled with the emotions stirred up by the characters in the play, whose words often did not echo the opinions of the cast.
“For me, [being in the play] was certainly about coming to terms with representing people who don’t necessarily share my point of view,” says Chris Cook, one of the actors who plays roles varying from an evangelical priest to the biker who found Shepard’s body.
“You can’t bring in your own personal judgments and feelings when you’re playing those characters. You just have to play them as truthfully as you can and try to see where they’re coming from, even if to you it seems like they’re just coming from a place of hate.”
“We do a lot of talking about compassion,” says Mooney. “We have some people who say some hateful things in the show, but those are their beliefs. We don’t want to just have them standing there and ranting; we want them to be real people. We talked a lot about accepting people’s beliefs, not agreeing with them, but accepting what they believe.”
The notion of accepting others’ beliefs truly hit home after Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church announced its intention to come to Vancouver to protest the play on Nov 28. (Phelps’ crew did not show up, but a counter-protest was staged by the city’s queer community.)
The threatened picket, which came during the same week Proposition 8 passed, demonstrated to many that perhaps we haven’t come as far along as we think.
“If you asked me two months ago, I would have said, ‘Yeah, we’ve come so far and it’s a different world now,'” says Laramie Project actor Keri Smith. “But I think we’re in the exact same place as we were 10 years ago. I don’t think much has changed; maybe awareness, but it’s just insane to me how I feel in just the past week we’ve taken so many steps back.”
Mooney says that while we’re lucky to live in a relatively tolerant city like Vancouver, there are still many people who are narrow-minded.
“This may be my cynical nature, but I don’t think we’re ever going to be in a place where everyone accepts everyone else for who they are,” he says. “I think it’s become less acceptable to voice these sorts of things out loud, but I don’t think that necessarily means people have become more accepting.”
Lydia Luk, PrideSpeak and outreach coordinator for The Centre’s GAB Youth Services, says that while there are always constant reminders that there’s still much work left to be done, gay youth are in a much better position today than they were 10 years ago.
“People are willing to talk about homophobia now and acknowledge that it exists,” she says. “The culture around homophobia has changed, and we have realized it’s not okay.”
Ten years ago, Luk notes, gay teenagers were terrified of coming out of the closet and often felt confused about their sexuality. Now, though fear and confusion still exist, she says she’s seeing youth come out of the closet earlier, young people who are more comfortable in their own skin and teens who feel they have a stronger network of support.
Even the Vancouver School Board has established an anti-homophobia consultant to support schools.
Luk believes that plays like The Laramie Project are important because they are a more lively way to explore important subjects.
“It’s a great medium for people to explore things they don’t deal with in their day-to-day lives,” she says.
Despite some of the controversy surrounding the production, Mooney hopes that audiences will walk away eager to talk about what they’ve seen, and discuss the issues and conflicts the play highlights.
“My favourite shows are the ones that people can go out for a drink afterwards and talk about,” he says. “And that’s all we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to change anyone’s opinions, we’re not trying to alter their beliefs. We’re just trying to open up conversation.”
But Anna Hassard, the Laramie cast member who administers the “I support keeping the Westboro Baptist Church out of Vancouver” group on Facebook, says that more than talk is needed.
“Opening dialogue is wonderful, but it’s not just about talk,” she says. “It’s about positive action and reaction to what you’re learning and what you’re seeing that really gets us somewhere.”