The Laramie Project: The Story’s Never-Ending Relevance in Society
Student Perspectives Series: Each semester, students of the Comm 350 (Digital Storytelling) class pick a campus event to create a multimedia review. Comm 350 is taught by Professor Anjuli Brekke and teaches students multimedia content creation skills. Through hands-on practice, students learn to put theories into action and to become a creative and effective storyteller in the digital media world.
A nonfiction play composed of real interviews from real people, The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project tells the story of 21-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard who was brutally beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming, because of his sexual orientation.
Matthew was attending the University of Wyoming at the time, working hard to be successful and make the most of his life. On October 7th, 1998, he was assaulted, tortured, and then tied to a fence in the middle of nowhere, unconscious and in critical condition. Matthew passed a few days later in a hospital located in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he was rushed to as soon as he was found.
Although public violence and bashings were unfortunately not rare within the United States, Matthew’s attack and eventual death rapidly caught audiences' attention nationwide. This tragic event became a wake-up call for the country and its people, exposing any underlying homophobic opinions and passive-aggressive feelings.
The University of Wisconsin-Parkside produced this play just a few weeks ago and ran on the weekends of October 13th and October 20th. A three-hour show including two ten-minute intermissions, much success and many compliments were given to the cast, crew, and production team of the show from audience members.
Cast members Hugo Dums and Braden Miller were selected as Irene Ryan nominees for their excellence in acting by the show’s KCACTF respondent, who came to see it on the night of October 21st. The stage manager, Taylor Ireland, was awarded a certificate of merit for their excellence in stage management. It’s not easy to put on a play so driven by human ethics and morals, let alone it being a nonfiction, real-life occurrence that was adapted for the stage to continue to tell such an impactful story.
Fabrice Conte-Williamson, the director of The Laramie Project at UW-Parkside, took a very dynamic approach to directing this production. Conte-Williamson said, “To recreate that feeling of out-of-control responses to the event, I wanted to keep the production moving extremely fast in order for the audience to feel thrown into this media frenzy”. Keeping that emotional rollercoaster throughout the play, he was very particular about how each character best describes the pain and realistic tragedy that happened during this time period.
When asked about the types of inspirations that the production team, cast, and crew saw during the rehearsal process, Conte-Williamson said, “Inspiring always because the show itself is very moving, obviously, not only just for queer people that are in the cast or working on the production, but I think for just as a community thinking about being better people, about being more inclusive . . . these things are always important and how we make theater bringing us together on one project, all these different people working together on one cohesive project is moving in itself”.
An ensemble-focused play that, for this specific production at Parkside, consisted of sixteen cast members as opposed to a traditional eight, a strong sense of community and teamwork quickly flourished that could be seen within each performance. The Laramie Project contains a collage of interview statements from over 50 different people within the play, in this case technically the “characters” (although actual real-life people), which were divided approximately equally between the 16 cast members so that each one of them could focus on a specific few in detail.
Cast member Braden Miller, a junior Theatre Arts major at UW-Parkside with a concentrating in Acting, was selected as an Irene Ryan nominee during the KCACTF (Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival) response to the show the night of October 21st, along with cast member Hugo Dums who was also nominated for the Irene Ryan acting scholarship. When asked what his favorite part was in regards to being in the show, Braden responded, “My favorite part of The Laramie Project would have to be the community. We all went into this not really knowing what we were getting into . . . we all had inside jokes, we all laughed, we all cried together, we went on this journey together and truly I felt closer to everyone even though it was such a large cast”. Miller stated that his biggest challenge was “finding out how to separate myself from certain ideas or characters I had to play, specifically people like Reverend Fred Phelps. It’s hard to feel good when you have to go on stage and preach so much hate to people”. The need to realistically play a character whose views don’t align with the actor himself will continue to be one of the biggest challenges an actor has to face.
Maggie Jay, another cast member, said about its relevance in today’s society: “One of the characters in the show that is gay says ‘we are all afraid because we know this could happen to us at any time’. All of the events of The Laramie Project happened years before I was even born, and as a queer person in 2023 I'm still able to feel the effects of it and the effects of homophobia. I think every bit of that story is just as relevant to the people that made it in the 90s as it is to us when we produced it last month”.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation is celebrating 25 years of “Erasing Hate”. Established in 1998, the Foundation exists to educate the public about the importance of ensuring safety, visibility, and inclusiveness for the entire LGBTQ+ community. It was created by Matthew Shepard’s parents in the aftermath of his passing with the purpose of honoring his life and to teach parents with kids questioning their sexuality how to handle themselves with care, love and support. They have two main focuses: changing hearts and minds, as well as eliminating hate crimes. Another initiative the Foundation presents is Matthew’s Place, an online platform of stories for and by LGBTQ+ youth. Donations can be made to the Matthew Shepard Foundation to support the continuation of their efforts.