Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, was robbed and beaten in the parking lot of a Laramie, Wyo., bar. His two anti-gay assailants then took him to a remote spot outside town where he was stripped naked, tied to a wooden fence, tortured and left to die. Shepard was found by two mountain bikers who delivered him to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where he died six days later. Two men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, were convicted of murder — Henderson also was convicted of kidnapping — and sentenced to life in prison.
Shepard’s murder rocked the nation and prompted calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on an individual’s sexual orientation. And, indeed, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — aka Hate Crimes Act of 2009 — bears Shepard’s name and the name of another hate crime victim, a Black man who was murdered by a group of Texas white supremacists in 1998. The act expands the definition of hate crimes to include gender, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.
The Shepard murder caught the particular attention of theater-maker Moises Kaufman.
“Shortly after the incident, I posed the question to my company, Tectonic Theater Project,” Kaufman wrote in an essay. “What can we as theater artists do as a response to this incident? And, more concretely, is theater a medium that can contribute to the national dialogue on current events?”
In response, Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theatre Project traveled to Laramie to interview townspeople. Kaufman and his theater artists conducted 200 interviews over a year and a half of repeated visits. The interviews were edited and shaped into “The Laramie Project,” an ensemble theater piece featuring eight actors playing more than 60 real-life characters. The play premiered in February 2000 at Denver Theater Center and then went to Union Square Theater in New York where it ran mid-May through early September. In November, Kaufman and company brought “The Laramie Project” to Laramie.
The piece has had countless professional and non-professional productions. Now, it will be performed by Barrington Stage Company’s Youth Theatre in a production that will be streamed, free, midnight Friday through 11:59 p.m. Sunday via barringtonstageco.org/education-bsc/youth-theatre/laramie-project.
“‘Laramie’ is the study of an American town, but it is also the story of ordinary Americans who created a conversation unlike any that had happened up to that point in history. These were ordinary people who faced extraordinary circumstances. Matthew Shepard’s murder was a moment in history that revealed both the best and the worst in human character and experience,” Kaufman wrote in his author’s note for “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” a stand-alone follow-up to ”The Laramie Project” based on Tectonic’s return to Laramie 10 years after the Shepard murder to see how the people of the town had changed — if at all — in the intervening years.
(Barrington Stage Company produced “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” on Oct. 12, 2009, as part of a nationwide 100-theater event commemorating the 10th anniversary of Shepard’s death.)
Little has changed in the years since Shepard’s murder. LGBTQ rights advocates are fighting feverishly to put out anti-gay and transgender fires all across the country.
For Hannah Katz, the show’s 24-year-old director, “The Laramie Project” seemed a natural choice to fill a gap in BSC Youth Theatre’s schedule.
“Sad to say, the play is still relevant today,” Katz said by phone.
Pittsfield High School 9th grader Steven Wood agrees. Wood is one in a cast of 15 Berkshires and Berkshires-area students, ranging in age from 12 to 18.
“As a member of the LGBTQ community, it’s important that more voices be heard,” Wood said by phone.
The production was filmed in March. Each scene was filmed three times.
“We chose the best of the three for the final version,” Katz said. The show is in the final stages of editing by Katz and her video team — Christopher Castanho and Jon Hed. Ian Gillis is the production’s stage manager.
Zoom rehearsals began in February and were conducted mostly after school, occasionally on weekends.
“Rehearsals have been unique,” 14-year-old Bee Gillespie, a 9th-grader at Wahconah Regional High School, said by phone. Gillespie lives “in the middle” of Becket where, she said, wi-fi connections are “difficult.”
Gillespie said, with a laugh, that her mother was happy she didn’t have to drive her daughter to rehearsals. Still, the self-described teen activist and member of the LGBTQ community wishes “we could have rehearsed and performed in person so we could make (direct) connections.
“I’m still glad I did it.”
Among the six characters she plays, Gillespie said she connects most with a college student named Jonas Slonaker.
“Her wants to make sure something lasting happens. He is all for making [lasting] change. I can relate to that.”
Wood plays three characters, people who, the youth said, “support [the story] of who Matthew was; at least one of them … played an important part.”
Wood was able to connect with his roles because, he said, “we share similar beliefs in how things should work and what things should happen.”
That was not the case in the beginning. One of the three roles he originally was given was a character who, Wood said, ”believed in and said things I found uncomfortable saying.” He’s playing someone else instead.
Katz is artistic fellow and executive assistant to BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd; was artistic and general production assistant at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y.; and has directed and assistant directed productions at Florida State University. She also was assistant director to Boyd for last season’s BSC production of “Harry Clarke.”
For all that experience, Katz said “The Laramie Project” has been a meaningful learning experience.
“I’ve learned a lot about community and collaboration from working with these younger theater makers who all raise questions,” she said.
Katz is hoping audiences will connect in real and meaningful ways with this “Laramie Project.”
“I’m hoping the story will resonate with audiences,” she said; “that it will inspire them to act.
“We can learn from art. The best art leads us to understanding.”
In the cast
Taibat Ahmed, 15, Pittsfield
Ty Aubin, 17, Adams
Madailein Demler, 18, Pittsfield
Deisy Escobar, 16, Great Barrington
Bee Gillespie, 14, Becket
Matthew Garrity, 17 Pittsfield
Eve McDougall, 16, Lee
Gabrielle Mott, 14, Lenox
Julianna Salinovici, 14, Pittsfield
Thalia Tassy, 17, New Lebanon, N.Y.
Brooke Tripicco, 14, Pittsfield
Sam Tucker-Smith, 16, Williamstown
Bei Jia Viggiano, 14, Pittsfield
Ruth Weaver, 17, Williamstown
Steven Wood, 12, Pittsfield