It has been nearly twenty years since Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming, because he was gay. A watershed moment for the LGBTQ community, Shepard’s death became a rallying cry for many, placing a spotlight on the issue of hate crimes in the United States and around the world.
Two years following his death, Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie, conducting hundreds of interviews with residents. Coupled with the theatre company member’s own journal entries, and news reports, the result was The Laramie Project, a full-length play told through as series of short scenes that recount the crime and the reactions to it.
Since its premiere in 2000, The Laramie Project has been produced around the world, including several in Vancouver. This year, Vancouver’s Tomo Suru Players revisits the play with a production that the show’s director Gerald Williams hopes will introduce an important part of LGBTQ history to a new generation.
“When I started this project I was having a casual conversation with a bunch of young people and they had never heard of Matthew Shepard or The Laramie Project,” says Williams. “They have experienced all the good things that came out of Mathew’s death, but none of the understanding about how things were not always like they are now. I hope that by hearing about Mathew’s death it will help them to see how we got to where we are now.”
But even as Shepard’s death was one of a number of catalysts for change in the struggle for gay rights, Williams does not remain complacent.
“There is still so much violence and discrimination against people solely because they are different,” he says, pointing to recent North Carolina legislation that, according to ABC News, critics have called the most anti-LGBTQ bill in the United States.
Told from the perspective of over sixty different characters, The Laramie Project is a large and sometimes complex undertaking. This production is no different, with a cast of eleven ranging in age from 11 to over 60 years old.
“It’s a cursed blessing,” says Williams of working with such a large cast. “In many ways it is like dealing with 65 different monologues where an actor has to work in isolation, but it all comes together and each of the actors draws strength from each other as we come together in rehearsals.”
Williams says that it has also been eye-opening to see how his cast approaches the piece.
“There was a conscious decision when putting this cast together to reach out to a younger generation,” says Williams. “Our youngest cast member is eleven years old and working with her has been a treat. Exploring and seeing the play about an incident that would have taken place during her grandparent’s time has been exhilarating.”
Beyond reaching a younger demographic, Williams also knew that it would be important to find something to help set his production of The Laramie Project apart from past productions. He found it in Vancouver composer Jeremy Hoffman. Working with the twenty-something musician, the two mapped out the journey of the play in an emotional colour chart that will underscore the action on stage.
“Every production of The Laramie Project will do things that everyone else does, but we wanted to add something that was local and unique,” he says.
Another way in which Williams hopes to set this production apart is in the venue, the intimate Studio 1398 on Granville Island.
“It is about the people in Laramie, and we wanted to be able to bring the actors into the audience so that they feel like they are almost part of a town hall,” says Williams. “The actors are not presenting information to the audience, but sharing with the audience to help them on this emotional journey.”
The Laramie Project plays Studio 1398 (1398 Cartwright St, Granville Island) from March 30 – April 3. Visit http://tomosuruplayers.com for tickets and information.