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UWEC stages documentary-style play about Matthew Shephard’s murder
Matthew Shephard has been a martyr for almost as long as he was a living person. Shephard, a 21-year-old college student, was viciously beaten, robbed, and left to die tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming – all because he was gay. In October 1998 Shephard’s murder prompted candlelight vigils across the world and a national conversation about hate crime and LGBTQ rights.
The aftermath of Shephard’s death and its impact on an American community is the subject of The Laramie Project, a documentary-style play that UW-Eau Claire’s Department of Music and Theatre Arts will present Oct. 18-20 and 24-27 at Riverside Theatre.
Richard Nimke, a theater professor and the production’s director, said the 20th anniversary of Shephard’s death isn’t the only reason he chose to stage the play in Eau Claire for the first time. While recognition of LGBTQ rights has expanded over the past 20 years – consider the landmark 2015 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed same-sex marriage – not all movement has been forward. Nimke noted that in recent years, hate crimes around the United States have been on the rise.
Nimke marvels that a play about events 20 years ago can still feel so current. “Partly it’s the political climate and the religious climate in this country,” he said. “It’s becoming very polarized.”
The Laramie Project was the brainchild of Moisés Kaufman and members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, which traveled to Laramie a month after Shephard’s death and began interviewing people, ranging from Shephard’s family and friends to ranchers, pastors, college professors, and more.
“It is in the form of these interviews, and throughout the play you hear all of these varying viewpoints about gay people and how they fit into the culture,” explains cast member Ben Qualley. “Those viewpoints could happen today and they’d seem pretty normal.”
Cast members marvel at how relevant the issues addressed in The Laramie Project are today even though the play is about a time before some current college students were born. The cast of 10 actors plays 40 to 50 roles, including members of the theater troupe who conducted the interviews. Because of their multiple roles, cast members can’t rely on hair, makeup, and costumes to create their on-stage personas. Cast member Miranda Fernandez says she worked hard to create seven different characters. “I adopted different postures, different voices … and I eventually sort of settled on important characteristics after making choices and seeing what worked and what didn’t,” she said. “Some of them I tried to base on real people, some I just sort of ‘found’ through this process.”
The play can serve as a learning tool for younger people, but Nimke cautions that it contains strong language, including anti-gay epithets. “It was at first difficult (for the actors) to give voice to the things they would never say,” Nimke said. Among the voices heard in the show are Shephard’s murderers and Fred Phelps, the notorious anti-gay pastor.
The play will be staged at Riverside Theatre in UWEC’s Haas Fine Arts Center. Nimke said Riverside works both because of the theater’s simplicity as well as its location on campus: Shephard was a college student, and Laramie, like Eau Claire, is a small, close-knit college town.
Nimke hopes audiences realize the similarities between themselves and their community and what they will see on stage. Whenever a kind of “otherness” is perceived in people, negative responses can result. Nimke points to a line repeated throughout the show: “We are like this.”
Qualley, the cast member, thinks audience members will leave the theater with different responses. “People of college age may be hearing about this for the first time,” he said. “People who might have been older when this happened might have time to reflect on where we have come since then, and how the conversations on these topics have changed.”
Added Fernandez: “I hope that audiences can take away that 20 years after it happened, this story is still very relevant and still has a strong message concerning hatred and acceptance. I hope that they can see both how far we have come, and also how far we have left to go, because the echoes of the sentiments expressed by some of the characters are still apparent in our communities.”
UWEC Theatre Presents: The Laramie Project • Oct. 18-20 and 24-27, 7:30pm • Oct. 28, 1:30pm • Riverside Theatre, Haas Fine Arts Center, 121 Water St., Eau Claire • $22 • tickets available at the UWEC Service Center at 715-836-INFO (4636) or 800-949-UWEC (8932) or online at uwec.ly