The Laramie Project, on the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard?s death

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“The first production was pretty life-altering,” Orlando actor John Connon states. “I’m ecstatic to be performing the update.”

On the 11th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder in Laramie, Wyoming, over 100 U.S. theaters are mounting simultaneous public readings of the play The Laramie Project, with a new epilogue. Three local theater groups—Asolo Repertory Theater (Sarasota), Mad Cow Theatre and Fantasyland Theatrical Productions (both Orlando)—are taking part.

“We see this event as a galvanizing force for the community,” says Michael Edwards, producing artistic director for Asolo.

This coordinated national public reading, called The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, will take place Oct. 12, the date of Shepard’s death. The new epilogue will have its premiere across the country that night.

“It’s great when theater can raise our consciousness,” says Edwards.

The Asolo production is free. Donations gathered during the event will benefit the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization dedicated to working with local and national groups to provide support and education for anti-hate initiatives. Asolo has also encouraged Sarasota-based LGBT organizations to have a presence in the theater lobby.

The Laramie Project is still one of the most performed plays in America. It was created by Tectonic Theater Project after going to Laramie, Wyoming and interviewing dozens of people; some directly involved in the murder, some not. The production uses a small cast of actors to show many denizens of the rural town, including the deputy who found Shepard’s almost lifeless body, a local cab driver whose customers included the victim, Shepard’s parents, and even the murderers.

“This piece shows theatre’s power to educate and to show our humanity,” says Connon, who will perform in Mad Cow’s production. “It shows us who we are as humans—both our shining moments and our worst qualities.

Connon first performed The Laramie Project with Mad Cow in 2002. The updated reading on Oct. 12 boasts the original director and all but one of their original actors from that production.

Tectonic went back to Laramie to conduct interviews for the epilogue, and Connon says he’s looking forward to revisiting the memorable characters. 

Proceeds from the Mad Cow production will benefit the Orlando Youth Alliance (OYA), a peer support group for LGBT youth. 

Fantasyland Theatrical Productions (FTP) first staged a production of The Laramie Project in 2003 in Newberry, Florida. Their reading will be outdoors, at the 900-seat Lake Eola Amphitheatre in downtown Orlando. The same stage will play a key role in the city’s massive Come Out With Pride celebration the day before.

“We’re glad to be doing it out there in the open, giving the work the public attention it deserves,” said FTP artistic director Christian St. John. “Once you’ve produced the show, you know how inspiring and motivating it can be, and that really drove us to be involved in this new project.”

The original Tectonic interviewers and actors will be involved with a Lincoln Center production in New York. But every theatre group involved has agreed to keep the epilogue secret until the Oct. 12 event. The new section showcases interviews with many of the townspeople introduced in the original play, including Shepard’s murderers.
“There’s a certain magic to all of us across the country revealing the epilogue at the same time, “enthuses St. John.

FTP has dedicated a portion of their proceeds to the Ryan Keith Skipper Foundation, created to honor the young gay man who was brutally murdered outside Lakeland in 2007.  The production company worked with Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan to secure the public space for their reading.

Like Skipper, Matthew Shepard was a young man who could’ve easily been lost in the deep recesses of rural America. Yet, these deaths called attention to the largely ignored problem of gay hate crimes. Shepard’s murder, particularly, mobilized people across the country, providing the impetus for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, a bill that designates crimes based on sexual orientation as hate crimes. The bill appears headed for passage in the current Congress. President Obama  has promised to sign it.

“The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later will not only help the members of Orlando Youth Alliance learn about something that happened when they were still little kids,” says OYA president Michael Slaymaker. “Our group hopes to build a future where this won’t happen again.”

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