‘The Laramie Project’ finally comes to Shepard’s school

— April 29, 2014

“The Laramie Project”has been performed at schools throughout the world in the past 15 years, but never at Matthew Shepard’s high school in Casper.

Until now. The play, which focuses on the reaction of people in Laramie to Shepard’s brutal murder in 1998 because he was gay, will be presented May 1-3 at Natrona County High School, on the very stage where Shepard performed as a student actor.

Kerry Drake

 It’s a strange but fitting way for a remarkable play to come full circle, and be performed in Shepard’s hometown by some students who weren’t even born when his badly beaten body was discovered tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie. He died a few days later at a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital, and the two men who killed him –Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson –are in prison serving life sentences.

I feel a special attachment to “The Laramie Project.”I covered Shepard’s murder for the Casper Star-Tribune when I was a reporter at the paper’s Cheyenne bureau. I remember racing over the hill to a hastily called press conference after my editor received a tip it was about a hate crime.

The tragedy and its aftermath was a big part of my life for the next few months. Covering Shepard’s funeral in Casper and Henderson’s abbreviated trial, which ended on the first day after he accepted a plea deal, are events as fresh in my memory as if they occurred yesterday.

I never dreamed my minor participation in this story would take on a life of its own, thanks to the efforts of a New York theatrical company that came to Laramie to help document the way the city’s residents coped with the attention it received worldwide due to the massive press coverage about Shepard’s murder.

I received a call one day from Stephen Belber, a member of the Tectonic Theater Project who was interviewing people about their reactions to the crime for playwright Moises Kaufman. I agreed to drive to Laramie, where I had a nice lunch with the actor while he interviewed me. It was strange to be answering questions instead of asking them, but it was an interesting artistic experiment I couldn’t imagine ever being completed. If those dozens of interviews were actually turned into a play, I figured it would run for a few weeks Off-Boadway and never be seen again.

Belber kept in touch and informed me about how the play took shape, and it had a successful test run in Denver, where it was fine-tuned for its Off-Broadway premiere. A funny thing happened on the way to the obscurity I had predicted for “The Laramie Project”—it was critically acclaimed, optioned for an HBO movie, and became one of the most produced plays in America. Many professional companies performed it, but given its compelling theme and educational discussion of gay issues, it quickly became a popular production for high school and college drama departments.

My interview mostly ended up on the cutting room floor, but about a minute of stage time survived. When I finally got to see the original cast in a special performance at the University of Wyoming, I was blown away by its achievement. Nerves were understandably still raw in Laramie, but everyone agreed the playwright and performers perfectly captured the city’s emotions.

After moving to Casper, I learned that Shepard had acted with Stage III, the community theater. Several members who had performed with him wanted to present “The Laramie Project,”and by 2006 the group decided enough time had passed that the community could handle seeing the play. My wife, Corryne, had acted in Stage III shows, and the woman directing the play, Bernie Strand, asked if I’d be interested in playing myself.

But first, I had to audition to see if I was right for the part. Strand was concerned my inability to speak very loudly would hamper the show. Still, she was kind enough to ask me to play not only myself but two other characters, a rancher and a priest.

Two weeks into rehearsals, I had emergency quadruple bypass surgery. It would have been easy to bow out, but a few days after surgery I decided since I didn’t have many lines as myself or the rancher, I could still play the characters. And the priest was a fun part, so I didn’t want to give that one up.

I stayed in the cast and had one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I had physical therapy during the day, and mental therapy at Stage III every night. I had never acted before, but conquering my initial stage fright –I never knew my knees could shake that much and I could still stand –gave me some confidence.

The three-dozen people who made up the cast and crew were incredible. I learned a lot about the teamwork it takes to produce a successful play, and I couldn’t watch some scenes from backstage without crying: Ron Richard as Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, addressing his son’s killer in court; and Dennis Rollins as the hospital spokesman, who had to tell the world Matthew died. I saw both as they happened, and these actors nailed their respective scenes.

I never had time to consider my own reaction to what happened, and the play helped me deal with some of the emotions I wouldn’t let myself consider. On the final night of our nine-show run, I felt profoundly sad the experience —which I knew would never be personally duplicated —was over. But I also felt proud of what the cast and crew accomplished, and it was great to see every seat in the theater filled each night.

I came away with a much better sense of why “The Laramie Project”is such a powerful play. The ingenious way it is constructed, with scores of characters telling their own stories, painted a picture of a town truly in turmoil. Matthew Shepard is the subject of the show, but never appears as a character. The audience is able to form its own opinions about the gay student and how his life and death will be inexorably linked with Laramie.

Laramie, meanwhile, could be any town suddenly thrust into the media spotlight as the result of a tragedy. That’s why audiences all over the world can relate to the play, because it makes them think about how they would react to a similar circumstance. The idea your town is primarily known as the site of a hate crime against a young gay man is disturbing, and the real-life people interviewed dealt with it in ways ranging from eloquent tolerance to extreme homophobia.

All of the dialogue is taken directly from the recorded interviews. The challenge for actors is to create their own versions of these men and women, most of whom are still alive, and convey what they were feeling. They get a chance to emotionally connect with the audience in ways few plays allow actors to do.

I’m envious of the students who will perform the play this week. I doubt many of them yet realize what a great experience they will have, or how important it is for a Wyoming audience –particularly in Casper –to see the play. It’s now part of our collective history, for better or worse.

I’m also proud it was my former co-worker and co-actor, Zach Schneider, who brought this still controversial play to the NCHS stage as the school’s drama teacher. I also shed tears when I watched his moving performances in our version at Stage III, and there’s no one better to help students understand their roles. I hope many generations will perform the play at NCHS and other high schools throughout the state.

Seeing “The Laramie Project”again will stir up some emotions in me that I need to be periodically reminded to explore. The thought of seeing a high school performance also reminds me of the day a few years ago when I saw our Stage III director. She had just seen the play at a Montana high school.

“It was wonderful,”she said. “And the 16-year-old girl playing Kerry Drake projected her voice a lot better than you did.”

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Kerry, I was honored to be a part of that Stage III production just as I am honored to now be a small part of Zach’s show, working for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. I think a number of journalists, including myself, experienced a sort of catharsis being in that show. It’s amazing how those moments affect us in ways we may never know until later in life, and open doors we may never have imagined. Thanks for this piece. Susan Burk