On a cold night in Wyoming, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, tied to a fence post and left to die because he was gay.
Shepard suffered severe head trauma and was ultimately pronounced dead in the early morning hours of Oct. 12, 1998, at a Colorado hospital. His death sparked a national outcry for hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels.
It also attracted the attention of the Tectonic Theater Project, a group of writers and actors from New York City. Over the course of the next year, the group interviewed more than 60 residents of Laramie, Wy., where Shepard was killed. Those interviews, combined with company members’ own journal entries and published news reports, were compiled together into “The Laramie Project,” a three-act play that explores the introspection and healing that can occur in a community following a violent crime.
The play has been produced by groups all over the country. Liverpool High School’s Casting Hall will stage its own production at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 14, and Friday, November 15, at 7 p.m. in the LHS Auditorium. General admission tickets cost $8 and will be available at the door. Some people may find the subject matter and some of the specific language of the play unsuitable for children under the age of 13.
According to producer Christine Spring, the fact that it’s one of the most produced plays in the country didn’t make it any easier to get permission to get it produced at LHS.
“This wasn’t something that was easy to do,” Spring said. “I had to keep asking permission. I did have to make sure someone read the script. We had to change the language a little bit, make it a little more PG.”
However, she said she doesn’t see it as a controversial show.
“I don’t have that reaction to the play,” she said. “It’s not one-sided. It talks about all the different opinions because it’s based on interviews with all of the people of the town of Laramie. It makes people think, and that’s what I think theater should do.”
Indeed, Spring said “The Laramie Project” inspired quite a bit of thought among its young cast, most of whom weren’t born when Shepard was killed 15 years ago this October.
“My students are 15, 16, 17 years old, so they don’t even know his story. I remember it vividly being in the news when it happened in 1998, but they’re their own lifetime away from the event,” Spring said. “On the anniversary, we talked about it. They each went to a quiet place in the auditorium to think about what it means to them to be a part of the play and what they were feeling and what was going through their mind and to write it down. Most of them ended up writing a letter to Matthew Shepard. I didn’t expect that, but it was a nice surprise.”
Working on a project like this one also helps to put into perspective things like New York’s Dignity Act and the various character education programs students have experienced throughout their school careers.
“Our principals talk about it all the time to the kids, so we said, ‘Let’s practice what we preach and use it as an educational tool,’” Spring said.
One English teacher at LHS has already used “The Laramie Project” in class and will be having her students attend this weekend’s production. Spring is hopeful other faculty members will follow suit.
“We’re hoping to get a lot of faculty to come, because there are so many connections they can make to their curriculum,” she said.
In all, 27 Liverpool High School students make up the cast, playing more than 60 individuals.
“It’s a really big group,” Spring said. “When it was originally done in New York City, they had a group of eight or nine.”
The play also has a 15-member crew, which designs and works on what Spring called a “modern, funky set” that changes as the attitudes in the play change.
The most important thing, she said, is that the play makes people think about its subject matter.
“I teach a theater class. We talk about how all of the arts, and about theater in particular, can be a strong resource or means of education for people, a voice for social change,” Spring said. “I just want the message to get through to them. That’s all I ask for.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.