“The Laramie Project”: Acceptance and Inclusivity Through Documentary Theater

Beckman Advanced Theatre’s performance on “The Laramie Project” tells the true story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student caught in an anti-gay hate crime

November 20, 2019


Ivanna Tjitra

The Laramie Project poster design by Sydney Hom and photo design by Anna Knepher.

The stage of the Performing Arts Center is all set up for the production of “The Laramie Project.” To the left of the stage lays a buck fence and to the right lays a leaning bicycle. Surrounding the inner stage are coat racks filled with various pieces of clothing. A backdrop of a sunset and stars is projected onto the back of the stage while buck fences line the back wall. 


In the center of the stage are eight chairs occupied by eight Beckman Advanced Theatre performers wearing all-black outfits. A ninth performer in all black stands to narrate the play. The audience is taken back to 1998, the year when Matthew Shepard was killed ‒ simply for being gay.


“The Laramie Project” tells the true story of the beating and death of Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyo. He was kidnapped, pistol-whipped, brutally beaten and left to die while tied to a buck fence. Six days later, Shepard passed away in the hospital, surrounded by his family members in Fort Collins, Colo. Afterward, eight members of the Tectonic Theater Project from N.Y. came to Laramie in 1998, just four weeks after Shepard’s death, to interview the various residents of Laramie. 


The documentary-styled play is written for a cast of eight performers, who play more than 50 characters combined. Each of the eight actors and actresses on the stage played a member of the Tectonic Theater Project and other various residents of Laramie, donning specific pieces of clothing to represent the multiple characters they were playing. The narrator introduced each character and would hand each piece of clothing to the member playing that specific character.


The minimal set displays and costume designs left the play to the audience’s imagination. The dialogue of each character were taken from the exact interviews, news reports, courtroom transcripts and journal entries collected by the Tectonic Theater Project. The play follows the townspeople of Laramie and how the anti-gay hate crime and the media shocked the little town of Wyoming.


The most important aspect of the production of “The Laramie Project” was the portrayal of these real characters, as the play is based off of true events with true witnesses.


“Being a member of the [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT)] community, I feel very close to [Shepard],” said senior Axel Evensen, who played the narrator. “Anyone in this theatre can be your pick of fictional characters, but it really takes a specific cast to bring real-life people to the stage.”


Axel Evensen, who played the narrator, embraces Evan Josten, who played Andy Paris, while holding flowers on the closing night of The Laramie Project on Nov. 16th, 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Axel Evensen)

Production for “The Laramie Project” started when school began. In the second week of school, Advanced Theatre had a general read-through of the play. Then, Mr. Moon, the director of Advanced Theatre, gave monologues from the play to the performers to audition for casting parts. Once the performers were casted in early October, a proper read-through officially started production. The first step of accurately portraying these real-life characters was through thorough research and truly understanding the impact this hate crime had on the characters. 


“The hardships were basically having people understand that this is a true story,” said Mr. Moon. “And that is a huge responsibility to tell something that is true. It’s much harder to do something that is true and real than something that is made-up. So that was the hardship, to really be able to tell this story honestly and to give it the justice it deserves […] The cast got to meet a couple of friends of [Shepard], which has never happened before. So it made it that much more real for the cast when they got to meet people who knew him.”


By the technical week, all the performers had their lines memorized and perfected. Hours after school were spent rehearsing ‒ sometimes even lasting until 9:30 p.m. Stagecraft designed and created the sets for the play, Art aided in the creation of the posters used in the play and Graphic Design worked with Photography to create flyers to advertise throughout the school. The Arts department worked together to put this production.


In 2010, Beckman had its first production of “The Laramie Project.” Nine years later, Mr. Moon decided to revisit the timeless play. He believed it was time to do it again with everything happening in the country and in the Beckman campus in order to spread the ideals that everyone is different but should be respected and loved for their differences.


“Though what happened to [Shepard] was twenty years ago, the anti-LGBT sentiments are still real and present today,” said senior Bella Kelso, who played Mercedes Herrero. “As theatre is a vehicle for conversation, I think this show is an amazing opportunity for people to start talking of many of the perspectives presented in the show. [Shepard]’s story is so important and deserves to be told everywhere.”


It is evident that huge amounts of work and effort was put into the production of “The Laramie Project.” The play came together, and the performers gave it their all to tell the story of Shepard. It is a story that needs to be told, especially in an accurate and heartfelt way. 


“When I first heard about The Laramie Project, I was intrigued because, as someone who enjoys theater, I thought it would be interesting to watch a show that I had not particularly heard about before,” said junior Ashlee Okamura. “I think the message of this play is to spread this idea of how everyone should be accepting of one another or, at the very least, respect each other’s views and beliefs. It is a great message for everyone to hear ‒ not just within the Beckman community ‒ because being aware of this basic concept can make us all better people and make us realize something about ourselves that we maybe hadn’t before.”


The play is proof that hatred can happen and that it can happen anywhere. It serves as a memorial, so the people of Laramie and the story of Shepard does not get lost or forgotten. 


“‘The Laramie Project’ is special to me because it educates and it brings up a very important topic,” comments Evensen. “It doesn’t matter if you loved it or hated it, everyone in the theatre leaves thinking about it. It opens a dialogue and opens minds, which is the first step to dismantling prejudice.”


In a time where news of tragedy and despair pollutes the world, the voices and stories of “The Laramie Project” are crucial to be heard amongst the noise. With a world drained with hatred and bigotry, tolerance and acceptance must shine through.


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