The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard forever changed Laramie, Wyoming. At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. But when the Tectonic Theater Project (creators of the documentary piece The Laramie Project) returned to the town a decade after making the original, things seemed eerily similar. Feeling compelled to respond, they created The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which charts the lives and attitudes of the town’s citizens in the same documentary style as the original work.
“When I read the play, I realized a lot of people are going back on what they had previously said,” says Emma Hooper Brooks, director of the current Ottawa production. “People are trying to get past what happened, but sometimes the way they do that is by pretending it never happened at all.”
Opinions about the murder have shifted in Laramie, in part because of a 2004 20/20 episode, which implied it wasn’t a hate crime at all, but a robbery gone bad (something widely disproven by trial evidence and statements by the killers). A number of current students interviewed at the University of Wyoming (where Shepard was a student) had never heard of him, despite an on-campus memorial. The owner of the property where he was left to die after being beaten dismantled the fence he was tied to, hoping to dissuade mourners from turning up there.
What becomes clear in the play is that small steps forward are always balanced with small steps back. While the town now hosts an annual AIDS Walk and drag queens work the local bar, homophobia is still rampant in the government and educational systems.
“When something like this happens, people have to accept that it’s a part of who we are, even if it’s not a part we’re proud of,” Hooper Brooks says. “Only when you’re able to do that can you really move forward.”