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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Laramie Project Cycle—A Return to Laramie

by Dan Bacalzo

Photo by Michael Lutch

It’s been more than a decade since Tectonic Theater Project first traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, in the wake of the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. “We found a community that was devastated by both the crime and the national media onslaught that the crime generated,” says Moisés Kaufman, the artistic director of the company. “As a result of this, the citizens of Laramie were forced to engage in conversations about their town and about their beliefs that most communities don’t.”

This kind of soul-searching led to Tectonic’s best-known creation, The Laramie Project. The documentary theater piece, which uses the actual words of the people of Laramie, had its world premiere in Denver and debuted off-Broadway in 2000. It is an in-depth exploration of how a town responds to tragedy, including multiple viewpoints that offer a complex portrait of a community in crisis.

As the 10th anniversary of Shepard’s murder approached, Kaufman asked several members of the company to help create what was initially planned as a brief epilogue. However, it soon became clear that they were gathering enough material to make an entire second play, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which is being performed at the BAM Harvey Theater along with the original as The Laramie Project Cycle from February 12 to 24, including weekend marathons including both parts.

The performance is co-directed by Kaufman and Leigh Fondakowski, who both contributed to writing the script and served respectively as director and assistant director for the original Laramie play. Ten Years Later is built around the idea of measuring change, with such success stories as defeating an anti-gay resolution in the Wyoming state legislature. But there are also troubling accounts of attempts by certain Laramie residents to rewrite history.

Fondakowski describes how several interviewees—mostly young people—thought Shepard’s murder was a media-exaggerated drug deal gone bad, and not a hate crime at all. “You start to see how they’re trying to bury the truth, to defame Matthew,” she says. “And you get a sinking feeling that’s our whole country, not just Laramie.”

Most of the original company members are returning for the BAM presentation, including Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti, who interviewed Shepard’s killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, for the Ten Years Later script. “The questions of remorse, responsibility, and justice are present in those scenes and those boys’ reactions to both the crime and their incarceration,” says Fondakowski. “It’s pretty dramatic the way the two of them land.”

The second Laramie play also includes an interview with Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother. “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is about change, but it’s also about how we create stories about the events that shape our lives,” says Kaufman. In the years since her son’s death, Shepard has become an outspoken advocate for hate crime legislation. In the play, she expresses frustration regarding the difficulty of getting such laws on the books. However, the script also notes that shortly after Tectonic’s interview with Shepard, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act—a clear victory following years of impassioned work.

Even so, homophobia is hardly a thing of the past, as evidenced by the rash of highly publicized suicides amongst LGBT youth over the last several years. Fondakowski acknowledges how this informs The Laramie Project Cycle, even if it’s not directly addressed in the text. “I keep waiting for the moment when The Laramie Project feels historical,” she says. “Because it should feel historical, but it doesn’t. It’s still as immediate as it was in 1998.”

And yet it has also become a springboard for others to speak to the issues that affect them. “The most rewarding aspect of working on these two plays has been the incredible impact and the thousands of productions the work has had over the last decade,” says Kaufman. “These plays seem to have captured and articulated a national dilemma: How do we survive one another in a culture so divided? And in doing so, they have become plays that allow communities around the country to have a dialogue about their own concerns and dreams for this place we call America.”

Dan Bacalzo teaches in the undergraduate drama department at New York University, and is the former managing editor of TheaterMania. Originally published in Jan 2013 BAMbill.

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