NEW YORK — If Wyoming hadn't already seemed another world, it quickly shifted into that sphere on the October day in 1998 with the horrifying news stories about a young gay college student brutally beaten and left tied to a fence outside Laramie.
In the five days between the discovery of Matthew Shepard's unconscious body and his death, the place where this homophobic violence occurred came in for a severe thrashing of its own.
It was still reeling a month later when a group of earnest, New York-based theater folk asking questions and bearing tape recorders arrived to begin research for what would become "The Laramie Project," the off-Broadway drama about what happened to the townspeople in this city of 27,000.
The good news is that there is laughter as well as tears to be found in the unfolding story--something surprising to people on both sides of the curtain, although perhaps not to the people of Laramie, who felt they'd been badly burned by the media hordes who had descended on the town seeking sound bites, sensationalism and stereotypes.
"That was shocking to me; there was something funny and charming about the people--not exactly the first words that would come to mind," says Moises Kaufman, whose experimental Tectonic Theater Project created the collaborative production that opened recently in New York. "There's something beautiful about their honesty and wit that's a cause for humor. It's an important function in the play."
Humor, however, was far from Kaufman's mind when he initially heard of the tragedy he describes as "one of those watershed moments in history . . . , an event that acts as a lightning rod." He explained: "There are 18 to 20 reported gay homicides a year, but this one resonated. All of a sudden, the whole nation was talking about it."
Having formed a historical perspective about an earlier watershed event--the sequences described in "Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde," the hit off-Broadway show he wrote and directed three years ago--Kaufman decided the next step should be to record the thoughts and opinions of the people at ground zero.
"Then we could create a document of where culture was at this moment in time," he says. The idea was not to rehash the news story of the murder for the stage, but (to focus on) what happened to the town. "How those people's lives changed was a microcosm of what happened to the country." And, along the way, the people who went west to do the interviews.
So it was on to Laramie, which was financially feasible thanks to the enormous success of "Gross Indecency." Just as the play about Wilde is fashioned from writings about the Victorian wit and playwright at the turn of the 19th century, "Laramie" would be put together from court transcripts and voices speaking from the American heartland near the end of the 20th century.
Script Fashioned From 200-Plus Interviews
Eleven members of the theater group, three or four at a time, traveled west for half a dozen prolonged visits. From more than 200 interviews, the script for "The Laramie Project" was culled--"what you see is about 5% of what we got," said Kaufman--with eight actors, all of whom visited the town, playing several dozen characters.
It's an eclectic bunch: an assortment of townspeople, including the owner of the Fireside Bar (the last place Shepard and the two men found guilty of the crime were seen in public), law enforcement and government types, religious figures, members of the small gay community, associates and friends of the victim and the perpetrators.
Kaufman, who was raised in Venezuela, says, "my ignorance served me well. I had no preconceived notion of what the West was like." But even for those who did, quite soon the New York visitors concluded that "these characters could be present in any small town," says Leigh Fondakowski, the play's head writer.
Often the actors played themselves--or each other: John McAdams' roles include Kaufman, and Kelli Simpkins plays Fondakowski. "It's a very interesting thing to have actors portraying people they met," said Kaufman.
Earlier this year, "Laramie" had its out-of-town tryout--and world premiere--in Denver, close enough to the Wyoming city so that many of the townspeople were in the audience. (Several have also visited the New York production.) "It would be nice to show that Laramie is not the hellhole of the Earth," a character in the play cautions her interviewer.
The townspeople, says Fondakowski, "saw us as an opportunity to tell a different story" from the media's depiction. And, in turn, "we kept asking ourselves if we were being fair. We were careful to let the audience draw its own conclusions. We had a fear of reinforcing stereotypes." For the most part, she said, the citizens "told us they felt we were fair--in some cases, too fair."
In Laramie, as in most of the country these days, "overt homophobia is hard to find," she said. "It's much more subtle." Almost everyone interviewed expressed the sentiment "live and let live," that "it's OK to be gay if you don't flaunt it. So then you go to the question of what is flaunting it."
Similarly, McAdams, who said he found Laramie "very tolerant," added, "although I now have issues with the word 'tolerant.' "
"Where you used to hear outright 'I hate faggots,' " Kaufman says, "now you hear the debate about whether there should be special rights." Another thing he found startling was "if there is any kind of homophobic statement made, five lines later there's the mention of God, the Bible or a religious institution."