Nearly 20 years after the death of Matthew Shepard, The Laramie Project, a play about Shepard’s murder in 1998 and the trial that drew international media attention to LGBT rights and hate crime laws, resonates as much now as it did then.
Osceola Arts’ Stage Left Studio Series will present The Laramie Project Oct. 1- 10, exactly 18 years after the events leading to Shepard’s death occurred and less than four months after the largest mass shooting and hate crime in the United States occurred in Orlando.
“It’s really fresh in our minds and it just makes us a bit more passionate about telling this story and telling it the right way,” says show director Aisha M. Soto. “We were blocking a scene, and were sitting there all in tears because it’s just so emotional; it’s such a heavy story and it brings up a lot of those memories we just had to live through.”
Shepard was a 21-year-old gay college student at the University of Wyoming in the late 1990s. On the night of Oct. 6, 1998, he accepted a ride from two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyo. Instead of taking Shepard home, McKinney and Henderson drove out to a rural area outside of Laramie.
There McKinney and Henderson robbed and tortured Shepard, leaving him tied to a fence in the middle of nowhere.
“They left him tied up to that fence for 18 hours. He was found by a random passerby, completely covered in blood and dirt except for the parts on his face where the tears washed it away,” Soto says. “That passerby contacted the authorities who untied him, brought him to the nearest emergency room where he then had to get medevac-ed over to a hospital in Colorado, because they couldn’t sustain his injuries.”
Shepard passed away in Fort Collins, Colo., on Oct. 12. Five weeks after his death, Moises Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York to Laramie.
“They decided to interview the people from Laramie to hear their stories and try to get a full understanding of this heinous crime,” Soto says. “They interviewed everyone from the sheriffs, the police, the townspeople, his family members; they were in the court room when both defendants were prosecuted.”
In all, the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed more than 200 people over the course of a year. Those interviews became the play, The Laramie Project.
“We don’t actually hear from Matthew Shepard at all in the play. It starts with his death, so we know upfront what happened to him,” Soto says. “Starting from there the story almost goes backward, learning what happened through a series of monologues and interviews. You’ll see a series of townspeople in many scenes – or what I like to call mini-vignettes – and they are telling the story from their perspective.”
The Laramie Project is one of the most performed plays in the U.S. today. It is presented in three acts, with eight actors portraying over 60 characters.
While she has been involved in directing theater in the Orlando area for 10 years, this is Soto’s first time directing for Osceola Arts, and she couldn’t think of a better play to start with.
“I think it’s important for us to do this show, especially after what happened to us here this summer at Pulse,” Soto says.
While Osceola Arts selected The Laramie Project for its fall show list before the Pulse shooting, Soto says in light of those events she can’t think of a more appropriate show to do right here, right now.
“It’s a story that absolutely needs to be told. Earlier this year I directed a Fringe production that I had written called Through the Eyes of the Homeless. It’s another type of social theater that just hits a lot of those issues that need to be brought to the table, need to be discussed. This is another one of these hate crimes that continue to happen,” Soto says.
Meaghan Macey moved to Orlando a few weeks before getting cast and has a personal connection to the story.
“I went to a small university in West Virginia and one of the professors is from Laramie,” Macey says. “He was there when Matthew died and during the trial and the news coverage, so he gave us a lot of insight when we did the show [at my school]. He added a lot of clarity to the characters and details about the town and showed us pictures. So I’m bringing that to this production.”
Soto knows that it’s been difficult for the cast as they move through rehearsals with the thought of Pulse on their minds, something cast member Melissa Riggins has worked with by drawing the similarities between the aftermath of the two events.
“All of the characters in this play are townspeople, some of them were close to Matthew and close to those involved in the case, and some just lived there,” Riggins says. “They don’t know much about who the people were; it just happened to be their town that it happened in and they only know about it because they live there.”
Riggins thinks the audience may see this show as a form of healing.
“That’s us. I mean, everyone here has some connection to [Pulse] because we all live here, so there are a lot of lines that we are connecting with as we are doing this play. You hear characters in the play saying things like ‘things like that don’t happen here’ or ‘we don’t raise people like that in our town’ and you think we do, because, look, it happened here. So I think there will be many parts of this play that the audience is going to relate to and identify with.”
What: The Laramie Project
When: Saturdays at 2p.m., Sundays and Mondays at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 1- 10
Where: Osceola Arts’ Stage Left Studio
Tickets: $15, Tickets.OsceolaArts.org