If you haven’t heard the story of Matthew Shepard, be forewarned – it’s not pleasant. But it’s important.
In 1998 the university student was tortured and murdered in an act of violence and hatred that stunned his community, his nation and people around the world. He was beaten into a coma and tied to a fence in a rural area just outside the small city of Laramie, Wyoming, left to die for being gay.
Shepard died in hospital a few days later while news of the incident spread around the United States and the world, prompting public dialogue about hate crimes and homophobia. Fred Phelps, Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, led a protest outside Shepard’s funeral in Laramie a week after the 21-year-old’s death. Inscribed on the signs people waved in the air were messages like “God hates fags” and “No Tears for Queers”.
A story of many voices
Among the reactions to Shepard’s death was a decision by members of New York City’s Tectonic Theatre Project to travel to Laramie and interview residents, the substance of which later became the verbatim theatre production “The Laramie Project”.
Local theatre company 4401 Hangashore Productions will debut their staging of the play Wednesday evening at LSPU Hall in St. John’s. Produced by students of Memorial University’s 4401: Producing the Play class, the play features a cast of established and up-and-coming actors. Local theatre director Danielle Irvine, who also instructs the 4401 class, is directing the play.
On Tuesday The Independent caught up with Irvine to talk about The Laramie Project and how the production is shaping on the eve of its LSPU Hall debut.
“The play has the voices of the people of the town – good, bad and indifferent. You know, warts and all,” she explains. “There were many opposing views about what happened to Matthew, and that’s what makes this story so powerful. It really forces you to look at the different viewpoints that people have and question your own, especially about coming to terms with a tragedy of this nature.
Relevant here, now
“It really brought the attention of the world (to) violence and hate,” she continues. “So the story moved me hugely, and I picked it and got approval from the other (instructors) in August. Then within days of that I started hearing about bullying happening around Newfoundland; I think it always does, not just in Newfoundland but everywhere. But I started hearing about these kids getting dragged out into the woods in Mount Pearl and getting beaten up and people dragged into ditches and getting beaten up, and it happening out around the bay — and it’s like, what is going on?
“It’s so timely, and I think we just need to check ourselves. I think as a society we start to feel we are growing and becoming open-minded and respectful … and in many respects we are, but in many respects we’re not. And if we don’t stop and talk about it when it’s happening and nip it in the bud and really wake up, it is a straight line down the road from bullying and beating to much bigger events, like murder. And we need to turn away from that line as soon as we can and help people realize that.
“There’s this great character…who talks about the seeds of violence being in how we talk to each other and the words we use with each other…” – Danielle Irvine
“There’s this great character in The Laramie Project who talks about the seeds of violence being in how we talk to each other and the words we use with each other, and that moves me and is something that I teach as an instructor at MUN — I always tell the students we respect each other in this room and we respect each other so that we can take risks and work together.”
While the students will be handling the behind-the-scenes parts, “everything from producers and stage managers (to) lighting designers and video and whatnot,” Irvine brought in mostly professional actors “because I needed that kind of strength to be able to handle the 60 characters” the script depicts, she says. “It also gives students a chance to work with professionals.”
Here’s a bit more from the event’s Facebook page:
The Laramie Project chronicles the life of the town of Laramie in the year after the murder of Matthew Shepard, using eight actors to embody more than sixty different people in their own words-from rural ranchers to university professors. The result is a complex portrayal that dispels the simplistic media stereotypes and explores the depths of which humanity can sink and the heights of compassion of which we are capable.
The Laramie Project runs at LSPU Hall from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1. Showtime is 8-10 p.m. and admission is $22 for adults, $18 for students, seniors and artists.