On October 7, 1998, 21-year old Matthew Shepard was abducted, tortured, beaten, and left to die, tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyo. Five days later, Shepard died in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo.
Flowertown executive director Courtney Bates says that Laramie Project, a play written less than two years after the murder, is “very shocking.” Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, was gay, and his death would become one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes in American history.
Flowertown Underground director Chase Priest says that although Shepard was murdered almost 20 years ago, “the message is really important for people to hear in today’s America.”
The Tectonic Theater Project, the group who wrote the play, traveled to Laramie in the wake of Shepard’s death, talking to members of the town to get their opinions and thoughts — they were there for over a year. The play is comprised of those more than 200 interviews. “We want to get this show out to hear what people have to say … this is an actual thing that happened and it could happen again,” says Priest.
Flowertown Underground, an offshoot of Flowertown Players, is presenting Laramie Project on the Flowertown main stage, instead of in the venue’s black box space. Bates says that because Underground is a teaching-centric program, where players and directors are generally 20 and 30 year olds producing theater for the first time, the more than four decades old theater is bringing in a new, younger demographic. “These audience members want something more avant garde,” says Bates. “It’s a little bit different than what you may typically find on our main stage.”
In addition to bringing this heavy, complex piece to the main stage, Underground will also be taking Laramie Project to competition: the first round is in November for the South Carolina Theatre Association, and the second round is in March 2018 for the South Eastern Theatre Conference. Because of this, the play has been reduced to a 60 minute run time, per competition rules. “I think this is a really strong piece to be bringing to competition,” says Bates. “It’s a piece that needs to be out there whether or not we get an award for it, whether or not we make a lot of money. It’s a show that is important to be done.”
Priest concurs, saying that as lovely as it is to win awards, and have great ticket sales, the cast just wants to have “people come listen to this story, hear the words of these people.”
While discussing the play, and how the cast is grappling with such a dark subject matter, Priest understandably gets a bit choked up. “It has been difficult at times, whether I was getting emotional or someone in the cast was … there’s a scene, it’s a word for word acccount of Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, talking in the courtroom.”
The actor who plays Shepard’s father had to take a moment to “cry it out,” says Bates. “That scene in particular you feel that emotion, the father tells everyone he’s not going for the death penalty … the amount of restraint and compassion that takes. It takes so much to let the hatred go.”
The night of Oct. 7, 1998, two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, abducted Shepard and drove him to a remote area in Laramie. He was tied to a split rail fence and brutally beaten with the butt of a gun. Eighteen hours later, a cyclist discovered Shepard, covered in blood but still alive. The cyclist mistook him for a scarecrow.
Today, Dennis and Judy Shepard have become champions of the gay community, starting the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a local, regional, and national outreach program that works to empower individuals, and to foster a more empathetic world. McKinney and Henderson were each charged with first degree murder and are in prison for two life sentences. They were not charged with a hate crime, though, as that was not a possible charge at the time in the state of Wyoming. It was not until 2009 that President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act, a law which “defines certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes.” While 45 states have passed similar laws that empower state level authority, Wyoming is not one of them.
“When Tectonic Theater visited Laramie, they found a lot of lingering homophobia in Wyoming in the ’90s,” says Bates. Priest says he’s already had a local woman come up to him who heard that Underground was putting on the play. “She and her daughter had driven through Laramie and her daughter is openly gay and it was a frightening time for them,” says Priest. “She was really excited that we are telling this story.” It isn’t an easy story, though, and Priest says you don’t get the kind of emotion on stage with many productions like you do with Laramie Project. “You don’t get that a lot in theater or anywhere because it [the circumstances] shouldn’t exist. It’s important to hear, but hard to say.”