By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
“The Laramie Project” is a theatrical production that unpacks the impact of a heinous crime on that southeast Wyoming community in October, 1998.
The Studio Theatre at the Cody Center for Performing Arts presented “The Laramie Project Cycle” in July. On alternating nights, for eight total performances, eight cast members presented “The Laramie Project” and “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.”
But in a community as conservative as Cody, putting on a show that highlights controversial social issues was a challenge, according to director Bethany Sandvik.
The Laramie Project
Tackling topics like LGBTQ+ attitudes, hate crimes, apathy and the re-writing of a community’s history, the play was first staged in Denver in 2000, followed by a New York City production two years later. A companion piece, titled “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,” debuted in 2009, re-visiting the community’s response to the death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, at the hands of two young men who grew up in Laramie.
The play was written based on hundreds of interviews with those directly involved in the case, conducted by members of New York City’s Tectonic Theatre Project. The producers traveled to Laramie to capture the reaction of the community to the fatal incident, which brought to the surface underlying prejudices and passionate responses to the life – and death – of the openly gay young man.
The play was written as “verbatim theatre,” in which the script is written word-for-word from interviews with the people who actually lived the experience surrounding Matthew Shepard’s death – from the young men who were found guilty of the crime, to friends and acquaintances of Shepard, to the law enforcement officers who investigated the case.
A Difficult Show For the Cast
“It was a hard show to cast,” Sandvik told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s not a play for everybody. And it’s not a play for every actor, because each actor has to play eight to 10 different characters.”
But Sandvik said not only did she need actors who were versatile, they would also have to put aside any personal feelings about the subject matter.
“If you have an actor who is fantastic, but they are in any way afraid to play a gay person or something like that, this is not the right show for them,” she said.
Sandvik said that both she and the cast members learned much more about the events than what they knew.
“I had heard that a couple of the actors believed that the Matthew Shepard murder was a robbery gone wrong,” she said. “I don’t think that that is the case after them doing this play. Even I kind of questioned it a couple times as I was going through it, because I didn’t know the story as well as I thought I did, until I really delved into both plays.”
Revisiting the Past
Heather Green attended a performance of “The Laramie Project” at CCPA with her 14-year-old daughter.
Green, who was a college student at the University of Wyoming in the fall of 1998, recalls that the community was shocked by the murder.
“I know that there was a general feeling of shock and just sadness and dismay on campus,” Green told Cowboy State Daily. “Everybody was pretty overwhelmed and just kind of gobsmacked by the incident. There was a lot of quiet and emotional reaction.”
Green said she didn’t know Shepard personally, but attended a vigil at the University immediately after Shepard was attacked, before he died a few days later.
“We all met at Prexy’s Pasture (on campus) and it was well attended,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of talking. I think everybody was just kind of overwhelmed and pretty emotional about it.”
After taking performances of both “The Laramie Project” and “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,” Green said the play fairly accurately captured the sense of shock and disbelief felt in the community at the time.
“I think people accepted that it happened, but I feel like there was just a pretty huge, resounding shock when it did happen,” said Green. “We didn’t know how to process it. We didn’t know how to put words to it, because it was just so out of left field. It didn’t feel representative of the times, I guess.”
But, she said, times have changed.
“There’s a lot more hostility in present day America towards lots of different groups, so it would not shock me today nearly as much as it did then,” Green said. “Then it felt like things were just a little bit more innocent and peaceful. That might be really naive on my part, but that’s what it seemed like.”
Drew Murray, who was involved in the production behind the scenes, explained that the “10 Years Later” play highlights the changing narrative that occurred in Laramie in the years after Shepard’s death, from the initial hate crime charges, to the story that the murder was a result of a drug deal gone wrong.
“I heard the ‘10 Years Later’ narrative a lot just being there,” said Murray, who was a University of Wyoming student from 2013-2017. “You know, people talking about a drug deal. I heard that all the time. So I never really knew what the reality was, all of those narratives combined.”
Murray has a unique perspective on the play’s subject matter, both at the time it was originally released and present day. Growing up in Cody, attending the University of Wyoming, and now on staff at Cody High School, Murray’s experiences with the LGBTQ+ community have varied widely.
As the drama coach, Murray mentors several students who aren’t afraid to share their experiences with her.
“Maybe it’s a generational difference, but I remember those kinds of things being profoundly private,” she said. “Our students are deeply unabashed to talk about anything sexual or anything body wise in front of us, whereas we would have never talked about that kind of stuff, especially not with a coach or a teacher. And now, oh, my gosh, the things that they say in front of us. They share everything, right down to the details that we never, ever wanted to know.”
But growing up in Cody herself, Murray said those types of conversations didn’t happen, even among peers.
“I didn’t have any sort of exposure (to LGBTQ+ issues) before going to college,” Murray continued. “And we got kind of this weird insider education in college from friends who were political majors or human resource majors, which I think was really helpful.”
In her position as the high school drama coach, Murray said she sees the program as a “safe space.”
“In theater, (LGBTQ+) is not our focus, and yet it’s still a safe space,” she said. “You’re not going there to be political, or going there to be an ally. You’re just going there to be a human, and you’re going to just be the human that you want, without any agenda.”
Murray said that in planning for the production of “The Laramie Project,” she experienced difficulties in securing “Talk-Back” discussion panelists from the community – individuals who could shed light on the topics surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, from school support, to personal and family experiences, to hate crime legislation.
“With the Talk-Back, the audience gets an opportunity to talk to experts in the subject of the play,” Murray explained. “I got pretty good reactions for the family ‘coming-out’ stories, but I got a surprising amount of reluctance around the (topic of) school policies.”
Murray said the uncertainties surrounding school policies on LGBTQ+ issues were behind much of the reluctance for current employees to participate, although she did get a former teacher, who founded Cody High School’s GSA chapter, to speak on the matter.
“We ended up getting Amy Gerber, who’s retired,” Murray said, “and Jessica Case from the school board also came and talked. She was really informative, but beforehand, she was like, ‘I have to do some research.’”
Murray said the process was educational for her, because as a school employee herself, she wasn’t entirely sure what the policies were.
“The school really doesn’t have a lot of policies in place,” she said. “So when questions arose, I skipped down to my boss’s office and very casually asked, ‘By the way, what do we do about this?’ And they were like, ‘I have no idea, I’ve never even heard of that.’ They were super helpful and we figured things out, and we just kind of do it on a case by case basis.”
Murray said she also hit a wall when she sought out legislative representatives to speak on the issue of anti-discrimination laws.
“We were never able to find any local or state representatives that were willing to talk on the hate crime laws,” she said. “We had one representative from Jackson who had agreed, and then ended up having a time conflict. But most of the representatives, I couldn’t even get an email back.”
Sandvik said she was disappointed in the small numbers that attended each performance.
“My theater serves about 150 people in this town, consistently, and they believe in what I do, and they believe in my mission,” she said. “But there’s a lot of people who would not come to this that are part of my mailing list and my regular (audience).”
Green said her daughter, who is a member of the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at Cody High School, appreciated the opportunity to attend a play that tackled these controversial issues. And she applauded CCPA’s decision to put on the play in Cody, despite a highly conservative population and mainstream opposition to the subject matter.
“Kudos to them for having the guts to do it,” she said. “And kudos to the people that went and supported it, because I think that there is a lot of hostility, and there’s a lot of people that are proud to preach their ignorant values, to be really honest. So I think when anybody has the guts to stand up and tell maybe a slightly different story or a different narrative, or highlight a group or or a story that’s maybe not mainstream accepted, that takes guts in Cody, Wyoming.”
“Bethany always likes to push the envelope just a little bit,” Murray said of Sandvik’s choice to put on a play with this subject matter.
“The conversations we’re having are sort of preaching to the choir,” Sandvik said. “I’m glad that we’re having these conversations, but I feel like the conversations aren’t being had with the right people.”