Learning From Laramie

On Oct. 12, 1998, a young man's life ended in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., in a tragedy born out of fear, homophobia and contempt for those who are different.

I still remember where and when I first learned about Matt Shepard's murder outside Laramie, Wyo. I vividly recall my emotions when I heard the details of how this young man's life was brutally cut short after he was beaten and left to die on a fence, seemingly for no reason other than the fact that he was gay.

On a gut level, I knew somehow that this was not just another act of violence. I have always believed that there are moments in history that cast a sudden bright light on an entire culture. And if what happens in that moment can be recorded, we not only further illuminate the beliefs, ideologies and morals that pervade a culture; we can seize the moment for change. The murder of Matthew Shepard was just such a moment.

Like so many others, I was horrified by the violence of Matt's death, but I also wondered how this crime, which immediately became an international news story, would affect a small town in a sparsely populated state. How had his death captured the imagination of the people of Laramie? How were they answering the questions the crime raised, questions about homosexuality, violence and more, which they had previously had little reason to ask?

Shortly after the events in Laramie, I asked our company at Tectonic Theater Project: How should we, as artists, respond to this tragedy? Could we record this crucial moment in a way that could bring Laramie's experience to the national stage, both figuratively and literally, and, through theater, somehow bring good out of this act of great evil?

And so, four weeks after Matthew's death, I traveled with nine other members of Tectonic to Laramie, where we conducted over 200 interviews. What emerged was a complex and profound portrait of much more than one murder; it was a portrait of an entire town. Of the bicyclist who found Matthew dying on the fence, at first mistaking him for a scarecrow. Of the female deputy sheriff who pulled him off the fence. Of the bartender who served both Matthew and his killers the night before, at Fireside Bar, which welcomed an eclectic mix of gays, foreign students from the nearby university and athletes, and who was haunted by the question of whether he could have saved Matthew. Of the Catholic priest who asked questions that few others would.

And we brought this portrait to the stage, not with a large cast but with only eight actors, seamlessly switching between dozens of roles.

I was proud of our work and how we brought the entire town of Laramie into the theater with us. I felt that we had produced something that truly crystallized the moment of Matt's death, the impact and aftermath and all the emotions and controversies and beliefs that surrounded it. But I never expected that what became The Laramie Project would reverberate so far and wide, being performed in thousands of venues, from community theaters to colleges to high schools, in countries around the world, and receiving a successful HBO film adaptation.

It might seem that what happened in October 1998 would be permanently etched into the town's memory, but memory has a way of being malleable, changing, and this experience has shown us how stories can be twisted to fit the feelings of those affected and how the media plays a role in shaping reality in powerful ways. In October 2008, 10 years after Matt's death, we returned to Laramie to interview the town's residents once more and created The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. What we found was shocking. While many of the locals saw Matt's death as a hate crime and were galvanized by it, others, perhaps influenced by a 2004 report on ABC's 20/20 that characterized the murder as a drug deal gone wrong, refused to accept that Matt's sexual orientation had anything to do with his death. There was no memorial to Matt. The log fence where his body was found had been torn down, and the bar where he met his killers had been closed. The mayor was doing nothing to commemorate the anniversary. And gay students in the nearby university were still afraid to be out.

In the intervening decade, other hate crime murders had made headlines, but far fewer than Matt's did. In 2001 a 15-year-old Native American two-spirit youth, Fred Martinez, was killed in Cortez, Colo. In 2003 a 15-year-old lesbian, Sakia Gunn, was murdered in Newark, N.J. None of these murders prompted a national conversation. Neither made their victims household names. But all three changed their local communities, spurring people to act in support of justice for LGBT citizens. Both became Laramie in many ways. Both revealed just how far our nation had to go.

The Laramie Project has started hundreds of thousands if not millions of conversations about the issues and events surrounding Matt's murder that would never have otherwise happened. We had the honor of being at the White House with President Obama after he signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009, 11 years after Matt's death. And as an artist, I will continue to make art not just for art's sake but to challenge the audience and prompt them to ask questions about the society that we live in and to make it better.

A new production of The Laramie Project and its sequel, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, is running at Brooklyn Academy of Music through Feb. 24. For more information, see BAM's website here.