The Laramie Project

Using Theater to Fight Homophobia

Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard

"The Laramie Project" is a documentary-style play created by the Venezuelan playwright Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, an experimental company whose work has often touched on social themes. "The Laramie Project" analyzes the death of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student who was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 because of his sexual identity. Shepard's murder is one of the most well-known hate crimes in recent American history; in 2009, the U.S. Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a piece of legislation that strengthens existing hate crime laws.

For "The Laramie Project," the Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York to Laramie in 1998, just four weeks after Shepard's death. There, they interviewed dozens of townspeople, collecting a wide array of different perspectives on the crime. The dialogue and monologues that comprise "The Laramie Project" are taken from these interviews, along with news reports, courtroom transcripts, and journal entries. The three-act play is written for a cast of eight, who play more than 50 different characters.

Documentary Theater

Also known as "found poetry," a "found text" is a form of writing that uses pre-existing material—anything from recipes and street signs to instruction manuals and interviews. The author of a found text arranges the material in a way that gives it new meaning. Some experimental poets, for example, create new works using texts such as Wikipedia articles, trial transcripts, old letters, etc. "The Laramie Project," since it consists of documentary material from existing sources, is an example of a found text, or documentary theater. Although it was not written in a traditional way, the interview material has been selected and organized in a way that presents a creative narrative.

Performances

How does the material translate to the stage? Assuming the actors are up to the challenge, a live production can intensify the experience, bringing new emotion to the material. "The Laramie Project" premiered at The Ricketson Theatre in Denver, Colorado, in 2000. It opened off-Broadway less than two years later, at the Union Square Theatre, and the Tectonic Theater Project even performed the play in Laramie, Wyoming. "The Laramie Project" has also been staged at high schools, colleges, and professional theaters across the United States, as well as in Canada, Ireland, and Australia.

Film

In 2002, "The Laramie Project" was adapted into a film for HBO. Moises Kaufman wrote and directed the film; the cast included Christina Ricci, Dylan Baker, Mark Webber, Laura Linney, Peter Fonda, Jeremy Davies, and Steve Buscemi. The movie received a special mention award at the Berlin International Film Festival and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Television Movie.

Legacy

Since it was first produced in 2000, "The Laramie Project" has become a popular work of theater, often used in schools to teach tolerance and inclusivity. In 2008, Kaufman wrote a follow-up play, "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," dealing with the legacy of the Shepard murder. The two plays were staged together as part of a special production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013.