In October 1998, when the news flashed around the world of the brutal killing of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, playwright and director Moises Kaufman was struck by how swiftly the crime riveted attention coast to coast. Fresh from the success of Gross Indecency, his play about the effects of Victorian society on the trials of Oscar Wilde and vice versa, Kaufman found himself wondering how theater artists could contribute to the national dialogue about the incident.

"As a gay man, I'm always interested in who tells what story, and how," says Kaufman. "And I noticed that while the symbolism of Matthew Shepard's death captured the imagination of a lot of people, we weren't hearing very much about how the people in Laramie were talking about it among themselves. That's what I wanted to know."

Within a month, Kaufman and ten other members of his Tectonic Theater Project flew to Wyoming and spent a week interviewing people in Laramie. From the media coverage of the brutal event, the New Yorkers had no inkling of what they'd encounter in Wyoming except deranged cowboys bent on killing queers. "I was really frightened driving into Laramie at dusk." says Leigh Fondakowski, an out lesbian Tectonic Theater member.

By the time the company had finished developing The Laramie Project, 15 months and six return trips later, both they and the people of Laramie had taken an intense journey together. While some devout Christians were predictably moralistic about Shepard’s “lifestyle,” the artists found their stereotypes about violent rednecks upended by townspeople who were open, astute, often heroically self-questioning. Because the company members had varying interests, they were able to conduct more than 200 interviews with a diverse cross-section of the population, from a limo driver who used to ferry Shepard to a gay bar an hour’s drive away to a young Islamic feminist who was born in Bangladesh and had lived in Laramie since the age of 4.

What Kaufman and his company created is less a reenactment of a crime than a portrayal of a social milieu – instead of Boys Don’t Cry, think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Although the play includes some material familiar from media coverage (such as Aaron McKinney’s confession and Dennis Shepard’s powerful courtroom statement opposing the death penalty for his son’s killer), Matthew Shepard is never represented onstage. Instead the play focuses on ordinary people ruminating over questions they’d never been required to address publicly before. 

“If you listen to the people in this town,” says Kaufman, “a hundred years from now you’ll have a document of what Americans were thinking about a whole range of subjects, from money and class and education to sex and effeminacy.”

The Laramie Project was an exceptionally ambitious undertaking for a small, independent theater company that had never done this kind of research or created a piece from scratch before. Fondakowski says that she and Greg Pierotti, another gay member of the group, “were very interested in meeting friends of Matthew Shepard’s and finding out what it’s like to be gay there. Laramie has no gay center. We just called people up, and one contact led to another.”

They attended a gay Thanksgiving potluck in a church basement in Cheyenne, Wyo. The attitudes they encountered were eye-opening to the gay New Yorkers. “We heard a lot of rural gay people defending the concept of ‘Live and let live,’ ” says Jeffrey LaHoste, managing director of Tectonic and Kaufman’s lover of 11 years. “For them, not flaunting your gayness was a positive idea.”

The first draft of the piece was written in three weeks by the ten people who first visited Laramie. After that, a four-member writers’ group took charge of editing and shaping the text of the piece, in which eight Tectonic actors play 60-odd characters. As head writer, Fondakowski also served as Kaufman’s assistant director as well as company travel coordinator (yes, she’s a Virgo).

The piece was further developed at the Sundance Theater Lab and at a workshop sponsored by new York Theater Workshop at Dartmouth College. (After its premiere run, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 1, Kaufman plans to take the show to Laramie and to New York as soon as possible.)

“One of the great achievements of the piece was following the journey of various individuals,” says Fondakowski. She points to the example of Romaine Patterson, the 21-year-old lesbian who created a brigade of silent demonstrators wearing gigantic angel wings to counteract the presence of Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps at Shepard’s funeral and the trials of his assailants. “When we met her in November, [Romaine] was incredibly young,” Fondakowski recalls. “Six months later she was a fully formed community activist.”

The February 26 opening night performance was especially cathartic for the Laramie residents in attendance. Zackie Salmon, a 52-year-old lesbian university employee, and Matt Galloway, the bartender who provided crucial court testimony about Shepard’s last hours, were among those clearly exhilarated and emotional about seeing themselves depicted onstage. As they embraced the performers afterward, “it was a chorus of thank-yous on both sides,” says Pierotti.

But the project has also changed the lives of the New Yorkers. “When we went to the fence [where Shepard’s near-lifeless body was found], we were both very emotional,” says LaHoste. “Moises was in tears. He said, ‘It’s so sad that Matthew will never have what you and I have.’ This whole experience has made me realize what a privileged position we’re in as gay people living in New York and working in the theater and not having to pretend. It’s placed us in a larger world.”

The Advocate, April 11, 2000