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At the Heart of a Modern Tragedy

A theater troupe heads West to help itself and a community come to terms with the slaying of Matthew Shepard.

July 29, 2001|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg, author of "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work," is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Moises Kaufman could not turn off the television. He could not put down the newspaper. Like much of America, he was mesmerized by the news of the horrific beating, robbery and eventual death in 1998 of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student attacked and left for dead by two young men near Laramie, Wyo.

"For the five days until he died, you couldn't turn on a television or a radio and not hear about it," says the 37-year-old playwright and director. "Matthew Shepard put a face on hate crimes. He was young, beautiful, starting his life. The nation as a whole said, 'Oh, my God. What's going on?' "

It was exactly the sort of question that Kaufman and his colleagues at the Tectonic Theater Project here try to ask, if not answer, onstage. So unlike much of America, Kaufman did not simply move on to the next news tragedy. The man who created the widely produced "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" had found his next theater project.

Over the next year, Tectonic company members made six trips to Laramie and conducted more than 200 interviews there. Transcribed, shaped and performed, about 60 of those interviews form the core of "The Laramie Project," opening Aug. 5 at the La Jolla Playhouse and with a film version expected on HBO next year.

"I wanted to do what only theater can do," Kaufman says. "The question that 'Gross Indecency' tried to pose was, how can theater relate to history? The question 'The Laramie Project' tries to pose is, how can theater relate to current events?"

In "The Laramie Project," 10 actors play themselves, Kaufman, shopkeepers, police officers, bartenders, clergy and others in a town of 27,000 where many people knew Shepard, his killers or someone who knew them. As actors assume the personas of Laramie townspeople, re-create conversations and address the audience, the minimal set accommodates hospital updates and church services, jury selection and trials. A killer's courtroom statement and a father's forgiveness bring alive an ordinary town and townspeople brought to prominence by a tragedy beyond their control.

Shepard, a slight, 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was discovered barely alive on Oct. 7, 1998, bound to a wooden fence outside Laramie. Beaten and robbed--of $20, his credit card and his patent leather shoes--by two local roofers around his age, Shepard had been left to die and probably would have if he hadn't been found by a bicyclist out for a late afternoon ride. Hospitalized, Shepard lived long enough to galvanize a nation praying for his recovery.

Shepard is not a character in the play, nor is his beating re-created onstage, yet a strong sense of him inhabits "The Laramie Project." "When I got to Laramie on my first trip--and it permeated every trip after that--one of the strongest feelings was the sense of Matthew's absence," Kaufman says. "You'd see people going to school, and Matthew wasn't going to school. You'd be in a restaurant, and Matthew wasn't in the restaurant. His absence was very present. I wanted to create a piece about absence."

Within days of the murder, Tectonic members gathered in Kaufman's living room, watching tapes of news broadcasts. More soon joined at Tectonic's Upper West Side offices, discussing the idea further. The group was looking for a project to follow "Gross Indecency." "I felt if we could record what people were saying in Laramie," Kaufman says, "we could also document what the nation was thinking and saying about not only homosexuality, but about gender, sexual politics, education, class, violence--all the fault lines of our society."

Never mind the strange logic that a bunch of New York actors could somehow make sense of a murder thousands of miles away in a small Western town. Nor did they have any indication of how people in Laramie would respond to the actors, many of them gay, descending on a community already picked to death by the media.

Kaufman recalls some hesitation and reluctance, but enough Tectonic members were interested to launch the project. "He wasn't saying let's go write a play," says Leigh Fondakowski, the show's associate director and Kaufman's closest collaborator on the writing. "He was really asking, 'Do we as a theater company have anything to contribute to the social dialogue going on?' "

"Gross Indecency" was a financial as well as critical success, and, Kaufman says, "the company had money in the bank. We used some of those funds to buy tape recorders and plane tickets, and it seems there is some kind of poetic justice in Oscar Wilde financing our being able to tell the story of another gay person whose life was destroyed."

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