'The Laramie Project' finds hope through tragedy

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PITTSFIELD — Just over 20 years ago, a gay college student named Matthew Shepard was murdered near Laramie, Wyo. The brutal 1998 hate crime quickly became national news and left the U.S. reckoning with acts of discrimination against its LGBTQ citizens and other marginalized groups. For Pittsfield resident Sara Clement, it was an especially personal tragedy. She was very close with Shepard during their shared stint at North Carolina's Catawba College and kept in touch with him while he was attending the University of Wyoming.

"The second I started talking to him, I felt like I knew him my whole life," the Pittsfield resident said during a Tuesday telephone interview, describing him as "worldly," "down-to-earth" and "outgoing."

That friendship has led to two artistic tributes at Pittsfield's Whitney Center for the Arts. A Clement-curated art show, "Flash Forward: 20 Years Later, the Ongoing Impact of Matthew Shepard," has been hanging in the building since mid-November and will have its closing reception from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday. Featuring local artists as well as renowned New York City-based illustrator Mel Odom, the display relates to Shepard in both subtle and obvious ways, according to Clement. Some of the artists created pieces specifically for the show.

"I really wanted to highlight themes that remind me of him, which were anti-bullying, tolerance, acceptance, gay rights," Clement said.

Clement's connection to Shepard also inspired her friend Monica Bliss, the Whitney Center for the Arts' director of performing arts, to stage "The Laramie Project." The 2000 play by Mois s Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project captures the Laramie community's response to Shepard's killing through hundreds of interviews conducted in the murder's aftermath. In shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, nine actors will play more than 60 real characters, relaying interviewees' words just as they were uttered to Tectonic Theater Project actors on a minimalist stage. Some of their reflections on this unconventional artistic process are conveyed, too.

"In researching the different characters, many of them are still alive, and there's other public information about them, including video you can find on them," said Bill Shein, whose roles include Shepard's father, Dennis, and Dr. Cantway, who treated Shepard. "So, that added an interesting element to determining how to portray each character. I can't speak for everybody, but I don't think we're trying to recreate each person to a 'T' as much as get their point of view across and capture the essence of who they were in both the very specific dialogue and the information we can find on them as actual people."

"When I have done research for plays in the past, you don't often have the living people to research," said Bliss, the director.

The cast — Amy Hausknecht, Colleen Jordan, Brian Litscher, Elliott Loverin, Kas Maroney, Christopher Montemagni, Shein, Deirdre Flynn Sullivan and Aleah Tarjick — has some members that remember Shepard's murder vividly. A couple weren't alive for it. Tarjick, a sophomore at Hoosac Valley High School, had a difficult time coming to terms with the hatred.

"Our generation is such, 'You are who you are. Everyone loves you.' Back then, it was still not there," Tarjick said.

Though also in high school, Loverin was well-aware of Shepard's death entering the production.

"As a member of the LGBT community myself, I know a lot about the history and the events, so it was nice to have an opportunity to participate in telling the story," Loverin said.

For those who are unfamiliar with the particulars of Shepard's death, the play's interviews shed light on the details both directly and indirectly, describing how Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson came to pistol-whip, rob and leave Shepard for dead. Litscher was well-acquainted with the incident from news reports but had never seen or read "The Laramie Project" before working on his parts. He wasn't expecting Wyoming residents to be as supportive of Shepard as they were during the interviews.

"They were much more sympathetic to Matthew Shepard than I thought they might be," Litscher said. "It was just my preconceived notion that got really shattered in a good way."

The characters don't express unanimous support, though. During one interview, a Baptist minister said that he hoped Shepard had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle as he was tied to the fence.

"To me, that's one of the most disturbing lines, that this minister could know this man was beaten to death and yet still think that that's important," Maroney said.

Yet, while a hateful act was the impetus for "The Laramie Project," hope is the take-away.

"It's definitely the point of the piece to show that the town did respond in such a supportive and positive manner," Bliss said.

And action is still required.

"We're trying to tell the story because, even 20 years later, it's still super important," said Clement, who will speak at a pre-show reception beginning at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, which would be Shepard's 42nd birthday. "People are still bullied. They're still discriminated against. Hate crime laws are still not in place. All of these things are still really important."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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