A collection of actors walks quietly from the wings and sits down in the simple chairs set on stage. One man stands up and begins to speak.
“On November 14, 1998 the members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie, Wyoming and conducted interviews with the people of the town. During the next year, we would return to Laramie several times, and conduct over 200 interviews. What you are about to see is edited from those interviews, as well as journal entries by members of the company, and other found texts.”
And just like that, The Laramie Project has begun.
Nineteen years ago, one of the most famous homophobic hate crimes of our time left the town of Laramie, Wyoming stunned. In what many residents called a ‘live and let live’ community, it seemed unbelievable that Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student, could’ve been tortured, beaten, and left tied to a fence to die. The crime drew the attention of first regional, then national news, but it also drew another group of people. The Tectonic Theatre Project, a company based in New York city, traveled to Laramie, where they interviewed several townspeople and recorded their stories. Those interviews became the backbone of The Laramie Project, a readers’ theatre that explores life in Laramie in the year following the crime.
The Laramie Project is one of the most performed plays in modern America. After opening at Denver Center for the Performing Arts in February 2000, it took to stages across the nation, including theatres in New York, New York, Los Vegas, Nevada, and now, Parkersburg, West Virginia.
The project was sponsored by the Actors Guild of Parkersburg, and though it featured both seasoned and inexperienced cast members, it was impossible to know this from their performance. J.T. Spivy’s lost, searching portrayal of Aaron Kreifels, the university student who found Matthew Shepard at the fence, was particularly wrenching, as was Bart Cannizzaro’s heartfelt performance of townsperson Harry Woods, a gay man who watched a parade of support for Matthew grow as it marched down his street. Much-appreciated moments of levity could be found with Todd Stubbe’s delivery of Doc O’Conner’s sometimes rambling thoughts. It’s true that there are many characters to account for, but this doesn’t make it hard to follow. All are connected, and this is noticeable even through the actors’ body language: those who aren’t speaking shift to focus on those who are and react to their words, sharing an eye roll or a smile. The cohesiveness of the cast was especially evident when their voices overlapped, combining news headline upon news headline into a beautiful, broken portrait of Matthew’s condition.
As the production continues, the descriptions become more somber. Accounts of arrivals at the fence, ambulance trips, and intensive care units bring out heavy material that isn’t sugarcoated for one second. Coarse language and graphic descriptions lend a new perspective to the incident on which most audience members don’t like to dwell, but the cast delivers a candid, brutally honest story so well that you can’t help but keep listening. That’s one of the things that takes The Laramie Project to a higher level: it urges you out of your comfort zone and into compassion.
On the technical side of things, The Laramie Project doesn’t need much. About a dozen chairs, several posters, a few sweaters, and a scarf help differentiate between characters. The black binders everyone held were soon forgotten as voices took command of the room. The project had both a straightforward and conversational tone that lent an air of simple honesty, though the topic is anything but simple. When asked if he’d like to share his thoughts about the performance, Director Greg Merrit’s immediate response was to stress the message. Instead of ending where you’d expect, The Laramie Project takes it one step further and invites the audience to join them in a final song, joining them in a display of unity for Matthew and against hatred. At the end of the day, it comes down to spreading the word of love and tolerance.