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‘Laramie Project’ confronts hate, intolerance

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By Sara Miller

On Oct. 6, 1998, the town of Laramie, Wyo., and the social conscience of our country were changed forever. That was the day Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student, was viciously beaten, tied to a wooden fence, and left to die. One month after the hate crime took place, members of the Tectonic Theater Project — an award-winning theater company that focuses on research-based productions — visited Laramie and conducted more than 200 interviews. The result of these interviews is a play that portrays the prejudice that lurks not only in the dark corners of thw rural town, but if left unchecked can lurk in the hearts of people throughout the world: “The Laramie Project.”

Fourteen years after that brutal slaying, the Evergreen Players are presenting “The Laramie Project.” Throughout October, the show has evolved into much more than simply another community production. This month has been packed with events tied to the production which seek to remind all of us that hate — in any form — is insidious and must be confronted.

“The Laramie Project”was born from the Tectonic Theater Project’s extensive interviews. The show is formatted like a docu-drama, with each of the 12 cast members portraying multiple roles and bringing these interviews to life. The audience will meet 64 distinct people, including friends of Matthew Shepard; Aaron McKinney, his attacker; Reggie Fluty, the policewoman who responded to the 911 call and discovered Matthew Shepard; and Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father.

The show’s director, Angela Astle, worked closely with her multi-generational cast to capture the realities of Laramie in 1998 and to understand the nature of hate crimes that continue to happen today.

“We all wish that ‘The Laramie Project’wouldn’t be as relevant as it is today,” Astle says. “However, with all of the anti-bullying messages in our schools and media today, it’s evident that it is time to revisit the story. We must remember that the way we talk to each other is still important. The slang that we use hasn’t changed in 14 years.”

Astle points out that although the show is about a specific incident in our nation’s history, “The Laramie Project”isn’t about Matthew Shepard or homosexuality — nor is it really about Laramie. The show is about hate of “the other,” whoever that may be — an often blind and visceral hate — and how that hate or fear affects individuals and communities.

The biggest message of the show is one of compassion and hope.

“Although the message of the show may be heavy, the passion is light. The hope and the way that the audience can feel when they walk out of the theater is unlike any other experience,” says Astle.

This hope is not just infused in script. As a result of Matthew Shepard’s death and the media surrounding “The Laramie Project,” the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009.

As part of their preparation for the production, cast members participated in Evergreen High School’s second annual Diversity Day on Oct. 12.

“We were thrilled that so many students attended our session. They wanted to learn more about Matthew Shepard, and more importantly, they wanted to learn more about the issues surrounding anti-hate,” says Astle.

The Players also helped support a visit from Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother. Dennis and Judy Shepard founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation to fight hate. Judy Shepard visited Evergreen High on Oct. 11 and talked with students about hate crimes and spreading a message of acceptance.

As part of the opening of “The Laramie Project,” the Players will host an opening night dinner at 5:45 p.m. Friday at Creekside Cellars. Greg Greenhalge of the Matthew Shepard Foundation will be the evening’s presenter. Reservations may be made by calling the Evergreen Players at 303-674-4934.

Audiences interested in learning more about “The Laramie Project”and the foundation’s work can attend community talk-backs after the Sunday matinees on Oct. 21 and 28 and Nov. 4 and 11. Immediately following the Oct. 28 show, cast members will present “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later Epilogue.” The epilogue was written in 2008 when members of Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to find out what had occurred in the decade that followed the slaying.

Sara Miller, a freelance writer and a resident of Evergreen, lives with her husband, two children and a dog.

‘The Laramie Project’

Presented by the Evergreen Players

Oct. 19 through Nov. 11; Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. at Center/Stage in Evergreen

Tickets: $10 to $20

For tickets or additional information, call 303-674-4934 or visit www.evergreenplayers.org.