3 min

‘You have to react’

Why one murder became a cultural watershed

Credit: Xtra files

In 1998, when openly gay college student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, hung on a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming and then left to die by two gaybashers, it seemed like the whole world wanted to hear about it.

Playwright Moisés Kaufman, who was enjoying the success of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials Of Oscar Wilde on stage in New York and around the country at the time, paid close attention to the media storm around the killing.

“There are 20 to 30 anti-gay homicides reported in the US every year,” says Kaufman, “but they don’t get the kind of media attention this one did. It resonated. It was like people all around the world stopped and said ‘Look what’s happening.'”

Within a month of the killing, Kaufman travelled to Laramie with nine members of his company, the Tectonic Theater Project, to research material for a new play.

“I am interested in exploring events that are cultural watersheds,” says Kaufman, “moments in history that make society stop and question what is happening, how it has been affected and how it must change.”

After making contact with people of the town and conducting 400 hours of interviews, the result was The Laramie Project, a documentary-style theatre piece for eight actors who portray 67 characters responding to the murder.

“The town was invaded by media looking for quick sound bytes,” says Kaufman. His theatre company approached the story differently. “We were engaging the people of Laramie in a dialogue, providing a context for discussion. We were able to develop relationships with these people.”

The company returned to the town for each significant event related to the story over the course of a year.

“And ultimately, our play became the story of the people of Laramie, as opposed to the story of Matthew Shepard.”

The Laramie Project premiered in 2000 at the Denver Center Theater Company, followed by a successful off-Broadway run in New York, a staging of the piece in Laramie and a star-studded HBO movie version. It was one of the most-produced plays at regional US theatres last season, and is being presented by literally hundreds of US high schools, colleges and amateur theatre companies.

The Toronto premiere will be the inaugural production of Studio 180, a new company created by director Joel Greenberg and producer Derrick Chua, and cast members Lesley Dowey, Deborah Drakeford, Jonathan Goad, Marvin Hinz, Alison Lawrence, Mark McGrinder, Kimwun Perehinec and Dylan Roberts.

“I was knocked out by the power of the piece when I saw it in New York,” says Greenberg. “I knew it was a play I could do well, and that it was something I would love to work on, but I didn’t think there was any way on earth I would ever get the chance to do the professional production. I was sure that somebody would take it.”

But there are several reasons why The Laramie Project is a tough fit for Canadian theatre companies, and when Chua inquired, the rights were available.

“It’s a big show, it’s not a commercial project, it’s not Canadian and it’s not a new play,” explains Greenberg. “It would take a commercial producer of some pretty remarkable conviction to have a go with this. We could only afford to do this as a co-op production.”

With seed money from the alumnae office at University Of Waterloo, and with the support of colleagues from all areas of production, the play was underway.

There was an immediate response from high schools, and four student matinees sold out quickly.

“The piece is an important educational tool,” says Greenberg. “It deals with homophobia and a specific kind of hatred, but it goes way beyond that. It transcends the details of the day and the event to become timeless and universal.”

Although the text is almost entirely the same as the film, Greenberg feels that the play is more powerful.

“It is presented in a very different way than the documentary style of the film,” he says. “The play is confrontational and engaging. The actors are speaking directly to the audience, which becomes another character. And when you are being spoken to like that in a completely uncensored way, you don’t have to like it, but you have to react.”

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Artword Theatre.
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