Theater : "The Laramie Project" at Playhouse
On October 12, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard died, the victim of a particularly brutal gay-bashing assault. A year after the highly publicized hate crime, an experimental theater company, the Tectonic Theater Project, sent a team to Laramie to chronicle the story and a compelling theatrical experience was created - "The Laramie Project." The play was presented in 2003 at the Vineyard Playhouse.
Recognizing the anniversary of Shepard's murder, the Playhouse, in collaboration with the Tectonic Theater Project, will participate in an October 12 nationwide staged reading of "The Laramie Project - Ten Years Later (An Epilogue)." A follow-up to the original work, it will be presented in over 150 theaters around the country simultaneously, including Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall where there will be a pre- and post-performance live-stream webcast.
The Vineyard Playhouse was chosen as one of the theaters to present the mass reading and the webcast introduction from Lincoln Center hosted by actress Glenn Close, Judy Shepard, the victim's mother, and the playwright, Tectonic's Moisés Kaufman. Vineyard audience members will be able to participate in the post-performance discussion that NPR's Neda Ulabay will moderate.
To create continuity, MJ Bruder Munafo, Vineyard Playhouse artistic director, is presenting a reading of the original play Sunday, October 11, the night before the performance of the "The Laramie Project - Ten Years Later." Playhouse veteran Scott Barrow, who appeared in the 2003 Vineyard performance, is returning from New York to direct the epilogue.
Of the two offerings, Ms. Munafo says, "I think they're created to stand independently of each other, but I also think they work really well as a body of work."
Mr. Barrows describes both plays, written by a team headed by Tectonic founder Moisés Kaufman, as docudramas. Similar to a video documentary, the story is told through the voices of those involved and others in the community through a series of recreated interviews. Mr. Barrows explains that the actors, representing the actual people involved, speak directly to the audience: "These are all people who want to have their story heard."
"The Laramie Project - Ten Years Later" epilogue is a follow-up that addresses the impact of the crime on the town and chronicles the changing opinions in the community.
Commenting on the power of presenting of it as a reading, Mr. Barrows says, "The focus is on the language and what these people say. We didn't think we needed to stage it." He adds, "These two plays together really are drama and theater at its most essential. They're very moving and very entertaining. Productions like this are why I got into the theater."
Interviews with the two convicted killers, which were not attainable at the time the original was written, provide the climax of the epilogue. Mr. Barrows, who was able to hear the actual interviews, says, "These two interviews are fascinating especially because you have so much back story in the original, but you don't really get to know them except through the court hearings."
The killers, young men who lured Mr. Shepard away from a bar in order to rob him, viciously beat him, tied him to a fence and left him to die, come across in the interviews as cold-blooded and remorseless.
Ms. Munafo calls the interviews "chilling."
Mr. Barrows says, "It's jarring and it's unsettling, but it's not easy to dismiss them because they're so human< which is one of the messages in the play - that these people are a product of our society, so we can't just write them off as conveniently as we'd like to."
Says Ms. Munafo, "Many of the interviews that were conducted were to determine whether 10 years later, people considered this a hate crime. We see this in some cases predictably and in some cases shockingly. Opinions had changed."
Mr. Barrows says, "Part of the story of the epilogue is that there are people who wanted to put it to bed, who didn't want to keep revisiting it."
However, a great many people are determined to keep the story alive - as evidenced by the fact that The Laramie Project continues to be used by community groups and schools as an educational tool. Ms. Munafo says, "Tectonic raised the awareness of a whole generation 10 years ago, and hopefully the epilogue will raise the awareness of a new generation, because these things are still happening."
A portion of the ticket sale proceeds will go to the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the rest will help the nonprofit Vineyard Playhouse. "In the spirit of community in which the play was written, everyone is donating their time and talent," Ms. Munafo says.
"The Laramie Project" 8 pm, Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven. Staged reading; precedes "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" on Oct. 12. $20; $15 seniors/students. For both nights: $30; $20 seniors/students. 508-696-6300.