In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was beaten and left for dead in Laramie, Wyo., a victim of a hate crime. In the event’s aftermath, members of the Tectonic Theater Project set out to Laramie to interview residents and, over the following year, molded their reactions into a narrative play, The Laramie Project. Ten years later, Tectonic returned to Laramie for an epilogue, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which will be performed in approximately 150 cities worldwide, including Santa Fe, on Oct. 12. One Tectonic member, Andy Paris, was in town to discuss his theater troupe with the epilogue’s local cast at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as well as with students at Desert Academy, who will perform the original play in February.
You went to Desert Academy; what’s it like discussing such difficult subject matter with high schoolers?
I wasn’t speaking too much toward how to do the play, in a practical sense, as I was there to field questions about what came up for them. They read the play, they also just saw the movie, and a lot was coming up for them about community and diversity and bigotry. And they were being really self-reflective about that. And also, questions about our process, going out and asking questions and what that was like. These are all really important things to air out as you prepare a production of The Laramie Project. What is the story we’re telling? How typical or not typical is that for our own community? And to really invest in that. I think that’s one of the great things about The Laramie Project is that people find—we get letters all the time saying, ‘Laramie is just like my town’ from all over the US and all over the world. There’s a lot in this play that speaks to people on a real community level.
Could you explain the structure of the play?
Basically the way we work is we do a series of readings and workshops while working on material like this. For instance, when we did the original production of The Laramie Project, we had the impulse to go and do the interviews with the people of Laramie. We went for a week, we did a bunch of interviews, we came back and transcribed them all so that they all became text on paper. Then we all went into a room and we started reading the transcripts to each other, thereby presenting what we came to know as “our people” to the rest. If I interviewed Jedediah Schultz, I would have transcribed his interview and said to the group of people, ‘I interviewed Jedediah Schultz and we were in this place and we were sitting in the green room and he was sitting like this.’ And then I would be him and I would read his texts. That became the basic form for The Laramie Project. So you have the sense of this New York theater company having gone to retrieve this information, brought it back to New York, edited it, interpreted it and come back to present it on the stage.
So the group members that conducted the interviews were the same people who edited?
The people who interviewed were, yes, the people who kept working on the project. We, as a group, edited it down, and a writers’ group took over to shape the material. So what you had is not necessarily raw interviews but rather a shaped play that followed a certain journey of the town of Laramie in the aftermath of this murder.
The interviews are constructed into a narrative?
The interview construct starts to recede a little bit and what you have is the text of the people of the town. You have their voices, whether they are in agreement with each other, disagreement with each other, and the town begins to discuss this event, how it’s playing out in their town.
There are going to be a 150 performances; will there essentially be 150 different plays?
You kind of hope, when you write a play, that there’s enough in the writing that there’s a guide for everyone to be telling the same story. So hopefully everyone will be telling the same story. Of course there will be variations of that, and there should be, in a way. Plays are meant to be performed on the day and in the community in which they’re performed. Even where they’re performed will affect how they’re played, and that’s a good thing, I think.
This time around, you were surprised that a lot of people in Laramie don’t consider the Shepard murder a hate crime. How do they construct the event?
Typical things we were hearing were, ‘It was a drug deal gone bad,’ or, ‘It was a robbery gone bad’ or that they knew each other, that they were in a world where these things happen—If you deal with drugs and you deal with alcohol and you drink or go out late and you party, then these things happen—that Matthew was quite wealthy compared to them. You know, ‘It was a robbery and they wanted his money and it got out of hand.’
How does constructing their history that way benefit them?
One of the characters that we interviewed basically says, and I’m paraphrasing here, that sometimes it’s easier for a community to face a drug problem. It’s something that can be gotten rid of; it is something that can be clearly fought. Admitting to bigotry inside a community is very difficulty and it puts the community really in the fire in terms of, ‘What are we gonna do about that.’ First we have to look into the mirror and say, ‘Our community has bigotry in it.’ That’s hard for any community to do, much less one that’s been under the microscope for 10 years. The other thing is what do you do about that. It’s a very difficult thing to face. So it’s much easier, I think, for people who live in the community to defend their community and say, ‘These guys were up on drugs and that’s why it happened. It was a robbery and it just got out of hand. Of course, when you start pushing back against those kinds of rumors—like this folklorist named John Dorst; he works at the University of Wyoming and he talks about when you push back against those rumors, there’s really no substance to them. It’s not connected to any fact. But that’s the nature of rumor, the idea that a community can then create their own story that fits what they want to believe and create their own narrative in the face of having a narrative thrust upon them.
Where there any other surprising interviews?
I think the pervasiveness of the rumors. From the very beginning there were rumors, that’s natural, but then there was a trial and there were a lot of facts presented at that trial. And some of these rumors continued to pervade even against the facts in the case. There was also a news program that really played into those rumors. 20/20 did a piece that really cemented these rumors to the extent that during the debate of the Matthew Shepard Act on the House floor, a congresswoman from North Carolina called the idea that it was a hate crime a hoax, that it was a hoax the democrats were cooking up to gain votes for the hate crimes bill. No one was listening to the trial and the facts of the case—that was very surprising.
As a whole, how do you think Laramie has changed in 10 years?
It’s changed physically. Until very recently, until the spring really, Wyoming was going through an economic boom. The energy industry was very good to Wyoming. Some people credit [former US Vice President Dick] Cheney. Whatever happened, they opened up huge tracts of land for coal-bed methane. They were selling it for years at very high prices. As we all know, energy was where you wanted to be for a few years there, so that really made a difference to their economy and they started building. The university got a lot of money; they started building a conference center. They were building hotels, trying to make it more attractive for people to come there. That has since dried up and they just cut the budget last spring at the university enormously, and people are losing their jobs. But at the time, it was a big boom. It totally changed the face of Laramie.
And how have the people changed?
You asked how Laramie changed, and that was one way, but that did affect how people were seeing things. For instance, there’s been a big fight on campus to get same-sex partner benefits for the university. It was for any domestic partnership, beyond just homosexuals but including homosexuals. They had fought for years for this, and they met with a lot of resistance. This was going on while we were there the last time and they had finally got it to a vote at the board of trustees, which was a long time in coming, and the board voted in favor of same-sex partner benefits, but with a clause that said only when the president of the university deemed it financially feasible. And that was about a week before the entire budget of the university was sliced. So that’s where it comes into play. Everyone was like, ‘Look, there’s all this money; we can put some of it toward this thing that is really great for the university. It will attract better people to the university.’ And they finally do it but that’s when the economic crisis comes.
As far as the people in Laramie, and how they’ve changed, that’s always the surprising thing when you go back to Laramie is everyone has a different idea about what’s changed, what hasn’t changed. They’re constantly raising questions. And I think the biggest question that is raised—and what the play raises—is, ‘How do you measure how the town has changed?’ You can try to point to monuments, you can try to point to laws and whether or not they’ve been passed, but does that really measure the change of someone who has maybe heard the story of the Matthew Shepard murder and thinks twice about telling a demeaning joke or whatever it is. There’s a lot of hate speech that gets thrown around all over this country, and if someone realizes it’s not the thing to say, that’s hard to measure. It’s really hard to say whether a community has changed or not when it could be a matter of whether a change says something or doesn’t say something, treats someone differently or doesn’t treat someone differently. They may not even know. So that’s one of the things we deal with in the play is how do you measure that? How do you know if a community has changed in the years since this has happened?
Do you think something like the Matthew Shepard killing could happen there again?
I think it could happen anywhere at anytime.
So, specifically, you don’t think that Laramie has changed enough?
Given the national dialogue right now, I don’t think that you could eradicate hatred or homophobia anywhere. We as a nation in the small communities have to educate people and take a stand in order for that to go away. I think that there’s great change happening in Laramie; I think that they’re doing incredible things. And there have been instances of change in that community, and there will continue to be. But changing any community is very slow and there will always be people who resist that change. I think that’s inevitable. They’ve made great strides and there are many people in Laramie that, because of that incident, really changed their tune and changed the way they approach issues of diversity.
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