THE LARAMIE PROJECT: A Play Has a Second Life as a Stage for Discussion

The Laramie Project, the play that director Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project created about the murder of gay college freshman Matthew Shepard, had its world premiere in February 2000 at the Denver Center Theatre Company. The production moved directly to New York for a highly acclaimed Off-Broadway run. Comparing it to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it an "enormously good-willed, very earnest and often deeply moving work of theatrical journalism." As successful plays do, The Laramie Project was taken up by numerous regional theaters -- it was the second-most-produced play of the 2001-2002 season, according to American Theatre magazine -- and made into a star-studded HBO movie, which aired in March of this year. 

Ordinarily, that would complete the lifespan of a play. Once it’s been published and filmed, it’s more or less retired from public consciousness. But The Laramie Project has had an extended life. This season alone, there will be nine professional productions in the U.S., one in England, and seventeen in Germany. And between January 2002 and June 2003, some 440 productions by American high schools, colleges, and amateur theater groups will have taken place.

"That’s a few more than are scheduled for Arsenic and Old Lace," said Craig Pospisil of Dramatists Play Service, which licenses scripts for non-professional productions. Only perennial classics such as Arsenic, The Crucible, Harvey, and You Can’t Take It With You get more than 300 productions a year, he said. "But even more surprising was that requests were coming from very small conservative places in the Bible Belt." This month alone, school productions will open in Hammond, Louisiana; Athens, West Virginia; Merion, Pennsylvania; Lawrenceville, N.J.; and Fullerton, CA, among others.

Clearly, The Laramie Project has entered the mainstream of American culture the way few plays do. Through a combination of its topic, its timing, and the artistry with which it was created, it has become more than a docu-drama fleshing out a news story. Tapping the essential function of theater since it began in ancient Greece, it has become a catalyst for the community to discuss among themselves something of urgent importance -- in this case, hate crimes, homophobia, and the treatment of difference in American society.

Mr. Kaufman and members of his company first traveled to Wyoming in November of 1998, a month after Matthew Shepard had been savagely beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die by two local men his age whom he’d met in a Laramie bar. The brutality and symbolism of the attack brought worldwide attention to Shepard’s murder. The Tectonic Theater Project had just had a big success with Gross Indecency, which dramatized Oscar Wilde’s 1895 court trials for homosexual behavior as a window on Victorian England’s attitudes about sex, gender, money, class, and education. Mr. Kaufman and his associates went to Laramie with a similar intention, seeking a wider context in which to understand a dramatic act of violence. Over the course of two years, they interviewed 200 townspeople and boiled down 400 hours of transcripts to a three-hour play portraying 67 characters, including ranchers, storekeepers, students, professors, policemen, various clergymen, friends and family of both Shepard and his killers, and the company members themselves. 

For the most part the characters address the audience directly, voicing every possible sentiment about Shepard’s murder and the environment in which it took place. Rather than accept any one opinion or account, spectators must serve as unofficial judge and jury, weighing the soundness of each piece of testimony. The open-endedness of the theatrical style provides any number of ways for a particular community to engage with the play.

For instance, a production that opened at Newark Memorial High School in California last month took on unexpected immediacy in the wake of the murder of a local transgendered teenager. Seventeen- year-old Eddie Araujo, Jr., who dressed as a woman and went by the name Gwen, was discovered on October 16 after being beaten, strangled, and buried in a shallow grave. Araujo had been missing since October 3. Four men have been charged with the murder, all of whom were former students at Newark Memorial. 

Mr. Kaufman, who attended the emotional opening night performance on November 8, said, "What the Newark school received was very specific and very powerful. When they were talking about the crime, the entire audience was sobbing horrifically because they were reliving something that happened less than two weeks before in that town. The kids told me, ‘Oh my God, we’re Laramie. We’re speaking these words, and they are about us.’"

Barbara Williams, who has been a theater instructor at Newark Memorial for 38 years and directed the student production of The Laramie Project* said in a phone interview that she specifically chose the play as a teaching tool. Even though Newark is a fairly prosperous and multiracial suburb of gay-friendly San Francisco, Ms. Williams said, "Our community is not very tolerant of alternate lifestyles. I know because I teach these senior boys. Two years ago I had a boy who beat up a gay guy because he looked at him funny in the coffee shop. That’s an underlying current that’s been boiling here. I saw The Laramie Project at Berkeley Rep two years ago, and I knew then that I wanted to do it as soon as it was available." When she chose the play, she had no way of knowing that it would serve as a sorrowful focus for grieving students who knew Gwen Araujo as well as a primer on fielding a barrage of media attention. "It’s blurred reality," she said. "The play has become too real."

Asked what the students took away from doing the play, Ms. Williams said, "The message of tolerance, I think. I’d like it if they’d understand this is not just a gay play, that it’s important to be compassionate toward all people. Sometimes I wonder if we’re just preaching to the choir. But I know the people in my cast have changed." As a coda to their production, the Newark students read a poem about Gwen Araujo and statistics about anti-gay violence, while a slide projected the statement "It can happen anywhere." Mr. Kaufman commented, "It was beautiful to see 16- and 17-year-old kids taking the leadership role in this conversation. We’re not used to looking to the younger generation for inspiration or dialogue."

An entirely different set of circumstances obtained on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park, where The Laramie Project was given to all incoming freshmen this year. "The idea of the first-year book," said Phyllis Peres, the dean of undergraduate studies, "is to give all entering students a shared intellectual experience. It’s not required reading but we encourage programming associated with the book. It’s being taught in all the freshman colloquia, in beginning theater, government and politics, and freshman English." Previous first-year books have included The Diary of Anne Frank and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass.
The Laramie Project was chosen for a variety of reasons. "We had an eventful year on campus last year, both wonderful and tragic," Ms. Peres said. "We were very affected by 9/11. With the Pentagon nearby, we lost alumni and others associated with the university. After that, two students who were sisters were killed when a tornado struck, and there were a couple of other student deaths. On the other hand, the football team went to the Orange Bowl, and the basketball team won the NCAA championship. We were looking for a text that addressed what a community does when traumatic things happen. And Matthew Shepard was a first-year student at the University of Wyoming. We felt students could identify with him and the struggle to fit into a new community. Plus, our theater department was going to be staging the play in our brand-new, state-of-the-art performing arts center, and we were excited to plug into that."

Ms. Peres also acknowledged that hate crimes are an issue on campus. "For students, this is a wonderful and vulnerable point in their lives," she said. "Maryland is very diverse, racially and ethnically; the minority population on campus is 30%. This brings together different cultural groups with all their baggage. Hate crimes take place in residence halls, and most are written or verbal intimidation -- things written on white boards outside dorm rooms. There were approximately 40 hate crimes reported in the last academic year, and about half had to do with sexual orientation."

A media furor arose around The Laramie Project as a direct result of a lawsuit filed last summer by the Virginia-based Christian group Family Policy Network against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for assigning students to read and discuss a book called Approaching the Qu’ran. Although it lost the court case, a spokesperson for Family Policy Network told a reporter that if the University of Maryland required students to read The Laramie Project, the group would consider suing. Since the book was not required, no lawsuit occurred. Still, the media frenzy drew the attention of the Rev. Fred Phelps, a Baptist minister in Topeka, Kansas. Mr. Phelps is a character in The Laramie Project because he and his family picketed Shepard’s funeral carrying signs that read "God Hates Fags" and "Matt in Hell," and he has made similar protests outside recent productions of the play. The mere threat of Mr. Phelps’ presence on campus in Maryland rallied students and faculty to respond, not by blocking his appearance (which never transpired anyway) but by engaging in campus discussions about the public expression of hatred and bias. Moises Kaufman, Matthew Shepard’s mother Judy, and Cathy Renna, media director the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, attended a campus forum called "‘The Laramie Project’ and Free Speech," which was attended by 800 students.

"A lot of people have been saying that the play is not about homosexuality," Phyllis Peres said. "In fact, it really is. At the center of the play is the fact that this first-year student was savagely murdered because he was gay. But the play is also about community and what happens when people with extraordinarily different beliefs are suddenly forced to deal with this. You can look at it from a legal perspective or an artistic perspective, but it also asks our students to look at themselves and ask, ‘Could this happen here? If it did, what would we do?’ The two young men who murdered Matthew Shepard were the sons of people who lived next door. To me, that makes this a powerful play. No matter what your religious beliefs are, what do you do when your next door neighbor’s son has committed this crime? All our students are at a point in their lives where they’re trying to make sense of these questions that are larger than their own lives."

The same weekend that the Newark, California, production opened, I attended another high school production of The Laramie Project at Newark Academy, a private school in Livingston, N.J., accompanied by Cathy Renna, her partner Leah, and Romaine Patterson, a young political activist who was a friend of Matthew Shepard’s and is herself a character in the play. We met with Scott Jacoby, the veteran teacher who staged the play and, like Barbara Williams, was acutely aware of the impact of the play on the students who performed it. 
"We did the second act of the play at an assembly for the whole school," Mr. Jacoby said, "and afterwards one of the administrators asked: ‘Given your involvement for the last two months, how would you like to see Newark Academy change as a result of this play?’ One kid said, ‘I’d just like to stop hearing the word ‘gay’ or ‘faggot.’ You know the lexicon -- kids use ‘gay’ as an all-purpose put-down. ‘Such a gay idea, such a gay class.’ They don’t know what they’re saying. As a result of two months of work, my kids have heightened their sensitivity." 

In a forum after the performance, the student actors confirmed as much. "This wasn’t just a play but it was about educating ourselves," said Tiffany Bergin, 17, a senior. Juan Trillo, 16, a junior who’d never been in a play before, said, "We didn’t just get together to rehearse our lines. We came together and spoke about our feelings." 

Sitting in the audience, I couldn’t help being impressed by the maturity the students brought to this complicated and emotionally charged material. Having seen The Laramie Project in Denver, in New York, and on HBO, I couldn’t help noticing what resonated with the Newark Academy spectators and what didn’t. For a knowledgeable Off-Broadway audience, the play’s several mentions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America were shorthand for "epic gay play about the impact on AIDS in America," and certainly for gay theatergoers, the name Fred Phelps conjures his slogan "God Hates Fags." These references escaped the Newark Academy viewers. Meanwhile, a young college student’s agonizing over making choices that would displease his parents seemed to strike a strong chord. And the only black student in the cast, Jessica George, brought a special fervor to her representation of some of the play’s most individual voices, a Muslim feminist university student and a Baptist minister who hopes that while Shepard lay dying he "had a chance to reflect on his lifestyle."

More than anything else, though, the Newark Academy production helped me understand exactly why so many schools are lining up to produce The Laramie Project. In sheer practical terms, it’s perfect for schools in that there are parts for many students. Although originally eight actors played all the roles, Mr. Jacoby used 18 and Ms. Williams used 20. It’s a compelling piece of storytelling that even non-professional performers can do well. And much of what the play has to convey as a teaching tool is embedded not just in its content but in its form. No one plays just one character; everyone has to represent multiple, sometimes opposing points of view. 

Mr. Kaufman has his own theory to explain the reception that The Laramie Project is having. "As a nation, we’re right in the middle of a big conversation," he said. "After September 11, the context changed again. We had to question these horrible acts of violence. How do they occur? How do we relate to them when they’re about things that define us? It’s unfortunate that extreme religious views fuel many conflicts in our culture, including homophobia. I so wish it would be a constitutional conversation rather than one about theology, because at a certain point theology becomes about faith. Faith and reason don’t go together. So the conversation ends.

"At Tectonic Theater Project," he said, "we’re interested in forms of theater that can talk about things. Unbenownst to us, we created a model that allowed us to be very thorough about how we listened to that community in Laramie. We returned so many times and sat for two or three hours with each person. We provided a very specific context for people to articulate their thoughts about class, religion, violence, sexuality. In that sense, it’s different from a town meeting. We were creating this very intimate two-hour space to articulate your thoughts. Then you could listen to those thoughts in the context of a group. It poses questions about what theater can do, how theater works as a medium, and what allows those interactions to take place."

The Laramie Project is ultimately a meeting between two communities -- a community of speakers (the residents of Laramie) and a community of listeners (the Tectonic Theater members who interviewed them). As a theater event, it models a way of speaking tough truths and listening respectfully that human beings crave but that we hardly ever see anywhere in public, especially in the news media, where sound-bites pass for insight and competing monologues masquerade as debate. The play doesn’t deliver any message that can be summed up in a bumper sticker, but the essence of it is captured in the tag line Mr. Kaufman chose for the HBO film: "Each one carries a piece of the story."

A slightly shorter version of this article appeared in the New York Times, December 1, 2002