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U theater students in The Laramie Project

More than 125 students auditioned for the 10 roles in The Laramie Project, which include the Laramie interviewees and the New York actors who interviewed them.

U Theatre explores what happened in Laramie

By Camille LeFevre

From Minnesota magazine

On October 6, 1998, a gay University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead outside of Laramie, Wyoming. Eighteen hours later, a cyclist found Shepard, who never regained consciousness and died in a hospital five days later. Two Laramie residents, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, were arrested, and suddenly Laramie was the hate-crime capital of America. A month later, Moises Kaufman and nine members of his Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York City to Laramie to interview a cross-section of the town's residents. They wanted to learn why such a crime had happened in Laramie and what the townspeople were thinking and feeling about Shepard's death. The actors talked with store owners, university teachers and students, local ministers, and the leader of an anti-gay group. They interviewed the bartender from the bar where Shepard was picked up the night he was beaten, the cyclist who found Shepard, and the officer who was first on the scene. They also met with friends of McKinney and Henderson. Over the next year and a half, the actors returned to Laramie six times, conducting more than 200 interviews. In 2000, Tectonic Theater's play about the actors' experiences, called The Laramie Project, opened in Denver, then moved to New York City and Laramie. In 2002, an HBO film version premiered on television. Beginning this weekend, The Laramie Project will be staged by director Bonnie Schock and students from the University of Minnesota's theater program. "What's interesting about the way this play was written is that it doesn't take overt political sides," says Schock, an affiliate faculty member. "It's very unbiased. "It represents the emotions of people who are scared, for whom homophobia is a real issue and who haven't come to terms with that; the opinions of people who were transformed by Shepard's death; and gay members of the Laramie community," she continues. "The play represents all of these people in ways that are fair and true. So to me, the play is about creating community dialogue around complex issues."

Shepard's brutal death "was so unexpected and so personally disturbing for everyone in Laramie," says Schock. "They had to ask the question, 'How did this happen here?' And that's one of the questions we want to ask: 'How is it in Minnesota today?'"

Several events in conjunction with the play's run, coordinated by B David Galt, director of GLBT programs at the University of Minnesota, aim to enhance that community dialogue. Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, who directs the Matthew Shepard Foundation, is scheduled to speak on April 15. (See Symposium.) An educational advertising campaign about gay members of the University community that ran in the Minnesota Daily last year will be exhibited at the Rarig Center on the West Bank. And facilitated discussions following the play will revolve around issues of tolerance. Because the play presents a variety of perspectives and voices as it examines the aftermath of Shepard's death, it will offer Rarig audiences the opportunity to "examine and consider their own levels of tolerance," Galt says. "If we look at the polarization we see in society right now, every chance we can create dialogue and communication gets us to a greater point of being more united rather than divided." Schock hopes her unique staging of The Laramie Project will help generate those conversations. The three-act play is non-linear, focusing on topics rather than following a timeline, and it's made up of moments rather than scenes. The play is also "very talky," Schock says, so she will "activate it by unearthing the underlying image or visual metaphor for each given moment and present that through the physical staging." In the opening scene, for instance, members of the Laramie community describe their town and the spaciousness of Wyoming. "So we're looking at ways to literally put that distance between people," Schock explains. The first act also includes a scene in which the citizens of Laramie have just learned someone's been seriously hurt. "They find out his name is Shepard and there's this buzz: 'Is this our Matthew?' They're trying to find information and what I'm seeing in this moment is butterflies flocking to the flames," Schock continues. "The people begin circling around a small TV. But when the actual media arrives and descends on them, they're exploited. They become represented across the country as Wyoming rednecks. When The Laramie Project was originally performed for them, it was a huge relief because it reflected what they really thought and experienced." More than 125 students auditioned for the 10 roles in the play, Schock reports, which include the Laramie interviewees and the New York actors who interviewed them. She applauds the University's "leadership role in bringing this play into our community." But, she warns, the play confronts some hard issues. "The people interviewed were honest, sometimes in ways that are engaging and humorous, but other times in ways that are not easy to hear," she says. "But it's that kind of honesty that really opens up issues and makes people able to see what their own opinions are." Now more than ever, she adds, "with the extraordinary backlash in civil and human rights," and with the continued lack of federal hate-crimes legislation that includes homosexuality as a recognized minority group, plays like The Laramie Project are needed. Shepard's brutal death "was so unexpected and so personally disturbing for everyone in Laramie," Schock says. "They had to ask the question, 'How did this happen here?' And that's one of the questions we want to ask: 'How is it in Minnesota today?'" The University Theatre's The Laramie Project runs April 8-17 at the Rarig Center, 330 21st Ave. S., Minneapolis. Tickets are $14 for the general public, $10 for UMAA members and U faculty and staff, and $8 for students. Call 612-624-2345 or visit www.cla.umn.edu/theatre.

This article originally appeared in the March-April issue of Minnesota magazine.

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