25 years ago, in the tight-knit town of Laramie, Wyoming, a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, chained to a fence, and left to die in a homophobic hate crime. Shepard’s death marked a turning point in the United States surrounding LGBTQIA+ rights and protections, eventually leading to the passage of the country’s first federal legislation for hate crimes in 2009.
This rising movement was propelled largely by the LGBTQIA+ community and Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard. One other powerful force in that cultural shift, however, was a play called The Laramie Project, created in collaboration by ten theatremakers from the Tectonic Theater Project, including the two head writers: Moisés Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski.
Founded in 1991, The Tectonic Theater Project is a not-for-profit theatre company based in New York City. Today, the company has created and staged more than 20 plays and musicals, including artistic director and founder Moisés Kaufman's Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Doug Wright's Pulitzer-winning I Am My Own Wife, and Kaufman's 33 Variations. Since its inception, the company has endeavored to break the barriers of theatrical language and form, building innovative original productions and adaptations that challenge artists and audiences. The Laramie Project remains one of their most definitive works.
The Laramie Project uses real transcriptions of interviews with Laramie residents in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death, all personally collected by The Tectonic Theater Project The play assigns each performer the role of a member of the Tectonic Theater Project as well as all the members of the Laramie community whom that member interviewed, resulting in over sixty onstage characters embodied by the ensemble of eight actors onstage.
Amidst countless other readings and productions commemorating the 25th anniversary Shepard's murder, The Laramie Project was performed October 11 in Laramie, Wyoming in a staged reading with original cast members and creators. A reading will also be held in New York City October 16 benefiting The Trevor Project.
In the 23 years since its debut, The Laramie Project has been seen by an estimated 10 million people across 20 countries and 13 languages, and has been heralded as one of the most innovative and impactful works of verbatim theatre and collaborative playwriting in the 21st century. Playbill looks back on the history of the groundbreaking play with its head writers Moisés Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski.
The Tectonic Theater Project Travels to Laramie, Wyoming
In the immediate aftermath of Shepard’s attack and eventual death on October 12, 1998, queer communities across the nation began to stand up in solidarity, mourning, and action. “It was a watershed moment when Matthew’s murder hit the national press. Hundreds of thousands of gay and trans people before Matthew had been murdered in hate crimes, but this was the one where the nation seemed to wake up,” says Fondakowski.
Kaufman, Fondakowski, and the company of the Tectonic Theater Project felt called to action. “Moisés didn’t say to us, ‘let’s go make a play.’ He said, ‘Do we as theatre artists have a role to play in the national conversation around Matthew's murder?’” says Fondakowski.
“One of the things that we do in Tectonic Theater Project is that we like to do things that we haven't done before. There were 10 of us, and only three people had ever conducted interviews before,” shares Kaufman.
The company members that journeyed to Laramie were Kaufman, Fondakowski, Stephen Belber, Michael Emerson, Amanda Gronich, Jeffrey LaHoste, Sarah Lambert, Maude Mitchell, Andy Paris, and Greg Pierotti. (Betsy Adams, Robert Brill, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Barbara Pitts, and Kelli Simpkins embarked on later trips to uncover additional information.)
In total, the members of the Tectonic Theater Project conducted over 200 interviews with members of the Laramie community. To do this even today is no small feat, but in the vastly different technological landscape of 1998, it took a lot of dedication on the part of the Tectonic Theater Project to find their sources.
“We didn't have cell phones, so we had to go in the phonebook and cold call people for interviews,” says Fondakowski. “So, 10 of us went off doing our own interviews, mostly going solo.”
“I was worried,” admits Kaufman in response to Fondakowski’s recollection of the Tectonic members going to interviews alone. “I was asking the company to come to a town where a young boy had just been murdered, because he was gay, and we had not only gay people in the company, but we had a wide variety of people in the company, so I said, ‘Please, everybody work in pairs.’ That lasted for about a day,” he says.
Despite Kaufman’s well-founded worry, the company following their individual instincts led to the diverse storytelling The Laramie Project is revered for today. “Unbeknownst to us, it was really wonderful, because we were able to find out about different parts of the community. Some people were interested in the university population, some people were interested in the LGBTQIA+ community in Laramie, some people were interested in the farmers, some people were interested in the merchant community downtown,” says Kaufman.
Inevitably, in the aftermath of such tragedy combined with national discourse and scrutiny, the collective feeling in the Laramie community was tension. The Tectonic Theater Project initially wondered if they would come across as intruders, and anticipated some level of resistance, but as they arrived on the heels of the media after weeks of relentless national coverage, they found that the town had even more to say than before.
“That was a very disruptive experience for Laramie to have in a small town. They were very wounded by how they were portrayed in the media. So when we showed up, it was like, ‘Okay, tell us how they got it wrong.’ It wasn't actually that difficult to get them to talk and open up to us,” says Fondakowski.
Kaufman shares that once the Laramie residents realized that the small company of actors were not journalists, but curious artists wanting to channel a news story into something deeper, they became very trusting: “We were not looking for a sound bite, but to see and listen to the person, and I think the people of Laramie soon realized that we were not the media, but that we were really interested in capturing something about their experience. And unbeknownst to us, we were providing a space for the community to speak.”
Putting the Project Together
With 200 interviews and 400 hours of audio recordings, Tectonic began chipping away. “I just started furiously transcribing this material. And in the days when a computer wouldn't do it for you, you had to have a little pedal thing that went back and forth, and I was actually quite quick at doing it,” shares Fondakowski. They recall that as the Tectonic company members all sat in a circle on the floor, documents scattered, whenever someone would shout out a question, Fondakowski knew exactly where the answer was within those countless pages of transcriptions. “I could rattle the information right off because I had transcribed them. All the characters had kind of gone through my ear.”
As they put all the pieces together, finding the real-life human within each character on paper came naturally, as each company member had personally interviewed whom they would be portraying onstage. “In our society, we trust journalists to conduct those kinds of interviews, but I think what we found was that actors have a superpower of empathy, because they have to empathize with the characters they're playing. So it wasn't only the tape recorder that was conducting the recording, it was their entire bodies and psyches,” says Kaufman.
Though the process may have been time-consuming and psychologically demanding for 10 non-journalists grappling with the information just as tangibly as an investigative team would, Kaufman and the company felt driven by the feeling that the work could serve as a crucial testament to what Americans were experiencing at the turn of the century.
“The kind of idea that I had in the back of my head was: this is the epicenter of something right now, and if we go there four weeks after it happened, we might be able to gather a document that tells us not only what Laramie is going through, but what America is going through at the end of the millennium. Not only in terms of LGBTQ rights, but all the fault lines that are dividing us as a culture, whether it be race, or gender identity, the definition of masculinity, religion, education, or our understanding of violence,” says Kaufman.
The Laramie Project Makes its World Premiere in Denver, Colorado
As Kaufman traveled back to New York after another trip to Laramie—this time, to attend the court trial of one of Matthew’s killers—he visited Denver to work with the then-artistic director of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Donovan Marley, who felt it was imperative for the work to premiere in Denver, just a little over a hundred miles south of Laramie. “Donovan Marley doesn’t get enough credit,” says Fondakowski. “We had an unfinished play—two acts of a three act play. But he knew it was timely, and he said, ‘I’m the closest regional theatre [to Laramie], we’re doing it.’”
The Laramie Project made its world premiere in Denver on February 26, 2000 for a limited engagement through April 1. Directed by Kaufman, the cast included Kaufman, Fondakowski, Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Barbara Pitts, Andy Paris, Greg Pierrotti, and Kelli Simpkins. Just six weeks after its first performance, it transferred to New York City’s Union Square Theatre Off-Broadway.
“What Mr. Kaufman and his team are after is less a portrait of any person than one of the ethos of a place. In the deliberate, simple formality of its staging, in which eight radiantly clean-scrubbed performers embody 60 different people against Robert Brill's bare-bones set, Laramie often brings to mind Our Town…But if The Laramie Project nods conspicuously to Wilder, this play is Our Town with a question mark, as in ‘Could this be our town?’ There are repeated variations by the citizens of Laramie on the statement ‘It can't happen here,’ followed immediately by ‘And yet it has.’” – The New York Times review of The Laramie Project Off-Broadway.
The Laramie Project Opens in Laramie, Wyoming
The Tectonic Theater Project knew that The Laramie Project had to be presented in Laramie, to Laramie, for Laramie. As right as it felt, the company still nervously anticipated the town’s reaction. “When the show opened in Laramie, Moisés was just gripping my arm,” says Fondakowski. There was palpable tension in the theatre from the start, and Fondakowski Kaufman recall an abrupt hush falling over the crowd when the lights went down, as though everyone was holding their breath. But the tension broke in one instant. “The moment where Doc O'Connor comes out, the audience laughed before he said anything, because everybody knows Doc O’Connor in Laramie, and they knew he was going to say something funny…There was no longer a separation between what was happening on stage and what was happening in the audience. It was the town talking to itself,” Fondakowski recollects.
For Kaufman, this moment was one that not only reinforced the thesis of the Tectonic Theater Project’s goal in creating The Laramie Project, but in what he had always understood the very meaning of theatre to be: “It made me think of the very ancient roots of the theatre, which is a community talking to itself about things that it cares profoundly about…This idea of theatre as a catalyst. You know, when you go to school to study theatre, they tell you the purpose of theatre is to achieve catharsis. That day, everybody who was in that room felt that it was a cathartic thing that we were able to do in the safety of the theatre, to look at this very painful story in the history of the town together.”
The Laramie Project Film Adaptation Releases Through HBO
In 2002, just two years after The Laramie Project’s world premiere onstage, a film adaptation directed by Kaufman was released, bringing Tectonic's account of Matthew Shepard’s story to screens all across the United States. Starring Christina Ricci, Laura Linney, Steve Buscemi, and more, the film propelled The Laramie Project to the forefront of artistic conversation, which resulted in a remarkable surgance of productions of the play all across the country.
Fondakowski says that the company felt the Denver and Laramie productions were the play’s pinnacle, and the film would serve as a closing chapter: “When we turned to making the HBO film, that sort of felt like, ‘Okay, we're gonna go from the theatre to film and then that will be the end of the story. But after the film, young people started doing it, high schools started doing it, professional and amateur theatres started doing it.”
Between January of 2002 and June of 2003, there were around 440 productions of The Laramie Project in high schools, colleges, and amateur theatre groups all across the United States. “It was like this grassroots groundswell of Laramie Project productions…particularly for young people, it became an activist tool.” says Fondakowski.
The Laramie Project Becomes An Ongoing Artistic Movement
As the years went on, The Laramie Project continued to serve as a vital resource for teaching communities, and particularly young people, about the consequences of hatred and prejudice. The play has been mounted in countless regional theatres, universities, and high schools, and in many schools, is part of an 11th or 12th grade reading curriculum. Matthew Shepard’s story never ceased in initiating and exchanging conversations across all communities. In addition to that, an additional chapter was uncovered for the play’s 10 year anniversary, when original Tectonic company member Greg Pierotti met with one of Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney, in a jailhouse for a chilling 10 hour-long interview. It was the first time anyone had interviewed McKinney in five years. Pierotti's pivotal conversation with McKinney eradicated any lingering doubts the public had of McKinney’s hateful intentions. From that point on, there logistically could no longer be public discourse as to whether or not Matthew’s murder was a hate crime—all because of Pierotti. The interview was condensed into an epilogue, added to new copies of the play, and presented in an extended performance starring the original company titled The Laramie Cycle, which ran at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February 2013.
As The Laramie Project continued to proliferate throughout the second decade of the century, Kaufman and Fondakowski were, of course, thrilled and proud to see the story being told more and more every year. But with that also came the poignancy of knowing that The Laramie Project’s continued relevance signified that it was still, in many ways, set in the present tense.
“I often get asked, why does it continue to be relevant? And I feel that it's unfortunate that he continues to be so relevant. We look forward to the day when it ceases to be relevant, but we're still engulfed in a lot of the same arguments,” says Kaufman.
Fondakowski expresses hope that the next generation will continue to fight for a future in which The Laramie Project feels like a period piece: ““We're all waiting for the day when this play can feel historical, but I think young people will always fight through it. You know, I saw this high school production…a friend of mine’s daughter was doing The Laramie Project in Washington, D.C. There was this tiny freshman in high school—he couldn't have been all five feet tall. And he gave the most riveting version of Harry Woods you've ever seen. He gets up and he says, ‘I'm 52 years old, and I'm gay!’ and you believed it.”
Kaufman and Fondakowski both shared their admiration for some of the high school and youth productions they’ve seen of The Laramie Project. They are not alone in their patronage, as another attendee of these productions is Matthew Shepard’s mother herself, who has been said to frequently fly out to high school productions of the play all across the country, which Kaufman confirmed to be true. “She goes everywhere. And I always ask her, 'How do you do it, Judy?' She says, 'Well, I put Matthew here in my pocket. I know that he’s there, and then I can go home,'” says Kaufman.
Judy Shepard’s efforts to support the continued spread of Matthew Shepard’s story doesn’t end there. Just two months after her son’s death, Judy Shepard alongside husband Dennis Shepard pioneered the Matthew Shepard foundation, a not-for-profit providing education, outreach, and advocacy for the acceptance and protection of LGBTQ+ youth.
Judy Shepard was also a major proponent of enacting federal legislation to prevent hate crimes, which eventually led to the passage of a bill partly in her son’s name: the The Matthew Shepard And James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
“Judy Shepard is one of the most extraordinary human beings I've ever met. When Matthew was murdered, the first thing she said is, ‘I don't want any one community to use this for their purposes,.’ And she realized that she had an opportunity to really effect change. This woman who always described herself as a very shy housewife and mother…she taught herself how to speak publicly and how to enact legislation,” says Kaufman.
Matthew Shepard's Legacy
As 25 years have passed since Shepard’s death, Kaufman feels particularly contemplative this year. “I keep thinking about 25 years. What would he have done in the last 25 years? We know he was interested in politics, what changes would he have made? Something about 25 feels so concrete. When you have a 25th wedding anniversary, you celebrate,” he shares.
With that, Kaufman shares one lingering memory in his mind as he ponders what could have been, had Shepard not been so cruelly taken from the world. “I’m still with the same person I was when I went to Laramie, and I remember that one night we were staying at the hotel at the Best Western. I had a late interview, and I went to bed and my now-husband was already asleep, and as I got into bed, he hugged me. I burst into tears and I couldn't stop crying, because I thought, 'This is what he will never know. He was robbed of that experience with a partner, with a husband.'”
But for all that was lost, Kaufman, the Tectonic Theater Project, Shepard’s family, and the countless theatre companies that have performed The Laramie Project worldwide continue Shepard’s legacy through artistic dialogue: “Even though he was robbed of so much, perhaps some merit of his story continues to permeate through the cultural dialogue that we're having," says Kaufman.