A community looks at human rights
Over the next year and a half, the Tectonic Theater Project made six trips to Laramie to conduct more than 200 interviews with residents.
The result was “The Laramie Project,” a play written by Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project. All words in the play come directly from the interviews or from court or police records.
It premiered in Denver in 2000 and was made into a film in 2002. This year the theater department at Forest Lake High School will present “The Laramie Project” as its spring play, four showings in a single weekend.
The play will be performed daily from Thursday, May 1 to Sunday, May 4. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances will begin at 7 p.m. The Sunday matinee will begin at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $6 for adults, $4 for students and senior citizens. They can be purchased at the door or one week in advance at the high school activities office.
Based on the interviews, the play gives insight into the perspectives of Laramie citizens as they examine how this could happen in their town and how the town can recover.
The play also challenges other communities to question themselves: What defines us? Do we deserve the identity that others have given us? How can we be a welcoming place to all people, regardless of differences?
Not simply a gay rights play, “The Laramie Project” is about human rights, challenging audiences to look deeply at beliefs about religion, race, sexuality and social class.
The spring play alternates between drama and comedy – last year’s production was “You Can’t Take It with You,” a 1938 comedy – so modern documentary theater is appropriate this time.
“We’ve been talking about it for a few years,” Director Tim Newcomb said. “I try to pick shows that are relevant.” He said reaction has been positive and students are excited.
High School Principal Steve Massey said that while there have not been incidents here that make the show especially relevant, “these are real-life issues that affect Forest Lake kids.”
The play, set a year after the event, includes word-for-word quotes from the interviews in chronological order, plus representations of press conferences held.
The 76 characters are portrayed by 22 student actors. Because the entire story takes place after the murder, Matthew Shepard never appears in the play.
Brooke McGraw plays Reggie Fluty, the first law officer on the scene. Jarod Bowers is Dennis Shepard, the victim’s father. Playwright Moisés Kaufman is portrayed by Sebastian Stephenson.
Jack Rudman plays the Rev. Fred Phelps, who came from Topeka to attend Shepard’s funeral, praising a God who “hates fags.”
Three of the actors, Zach Marleau, Amanda Hennen and Olivia Westphal, saw the show at Lyric Arts in Anoka in September, before they knew it would be produced here.
“As soon as the first line was spoken, I was immediately transported to Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998,” Marleau said. “Reading it is awesome, but seeing it is another thing.”
Westphal said while some characters are more insightful, no one stands out as being especially magnanimous or wise. The play illustrates that every community has multiple leaders, Newcomb added.
Because the play is based on an event that happened not that long ago, it presents a unique situation: The actors portray real people, most of them still alive.
One example is Rulon Stacey, who was CEO of Poudre Valley Health and now is president and CEO of Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis.
“He’s a very nice man,” Marleau said. Marleau found him on Facebook and did a friend request, which Stacey accepted.
“It’s a really great experience for kids to get to portray real people,” Marleau said. “To do that in high school is a real opportunity.”
Westphal plays Rebecca Hilliker, theater director at the University of Wyoming. It’s not a difficult role, she said, because “I sort of identify with her views.”
“Hilliker clearly cares a lot for her students,” Westphal said. “She feels it is important for students to talk about this with their teachers; she emphasizes that point through the whole show.”
The other character she plays is Dr. Cantway, the emergency room doctor who treated Matthew Shepard before he died six days later from severe head injuries.
Cantway’s words conclude Act 1: “For a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. And I felt a great deal of compassion.”
“It’s pretty deep,” Westphal concluded.
For what ages?
Parents may wonder whether to bring their children to see this story of fear, anger, hate and violence. Director Newcomb advised that the play is probably appropriate for most junior high students, provided they watch it with people they can talk to later.
After each performance, the cast and director will hold a talk-back session, giving students an opportunity to ask questions.
For younger students, Newcomb recommends extreme caution.
“There is profanity and language I wouldn’t want elementary students to hear, and there are things they won’t understand,” he said.
Bri Flasch, who plays prosecuting attorney Cal Rerucha, agreed.
“When I was 10, I wouldn’t have been ready,” she said. “Serious ones will want to hear about an issue they think relevant, and should have that opportunity.”
Marleau suggested that the presence of profanity should not keep 10-year-olds away.
“It’s a great message,” he said. “There’s profanity everywhere. We took out unneeded profanity. But it’s really about human rights.”
In spite of the overall serious theme, the characters are interesting and at times humorous.
But viewers should be aware that entertainment is not the main goal.
“Our underlying motivation is we want to do them justice,” Westphal said. “It’s their views, and we want to interpret it correctly so it represents them well.”
Shepard’s murderers were given life sentences. No hate crime laws applied at the time. In 2009 the federal hate-crime law was expanded to include crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation.
Ten years later Moisès Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project returned to Laramie to explore long-term effects on the community.
Instead of a short epilogue as expected, the result was a second play, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.”
The play, which debuted in 2009, documents attempts to rewrite the history of the murder.
Like the first play, the sequel uses no fictional words.