It’s been nearly 11 years since Matthew Shepard, an openly gay college student from Laramie, Wyo. , was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die, and the groundbreaking play that immortalized his death will be resurrected in a new form at theaters around the country next week.
“The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later — An Epilogue” will be performed in more than 100 venues on Oct.12 — the 11th anniversary of Shepard’s death — including Temple University’s Tomlinson Theater, 1301 Norris St.
Moises Kauffman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project set out for Laramie just a month after Shepard’s death in 1998 to talk to townspeople and those involved in the case and, over the next year, compiled hundreds of interviews for “The Laramie Project.”
Ten years after their work started, Tectonic members again visited Laramie to examine how Shepard’s murder has shaped the town and collected another set of interviews for the epilogue.
Charles Bethea, executive director of Temple’s Baptist Temple — a refurbished church on the campus opening this spring that will host a variety of arts and entertainment events — said he learned of the epilogue project while he was at a conference last January and later got the chance to watch the Tectonic team perform a reading of the then-partially completed script.
“I went to a reading and had a discussion with Moises and other cast members and it just seemed like they were developing a really unique idea,” Bethea said. “It became apparent to everyone who heard this that this was going to be a very significant work.”
Bethea said that when he learned of Tectonic’s intent to have the piece performed on the same day at theaters across the country, he contacted Temple’s theater department to assess the feasibility of bringing the work to the school. The department and the Baptist Temple have spent the last few months collaborating on the effort.
Ed Sobel, formerly of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, is directing Temple’s production of the epilogue, which will be performed by five undergraduate and five graduate students.
Included in the epilogue is an interview with Judy Shepard, the victim’s mother, and one of his killers, who is serving two consecutive life sentences, as well as with figures included in the original play and several new townspeople.
“What’s most striking is the cumulative impact of the play. It gives a portrait of the entire community,” Sobel said. “What one comes away with is this sense of how this community has chosen to deal with this cataclysmic event. In a way, the piece is larger than just Matthew’s murder. It has to do with the stories that we tell ourselves when something this large happens, something that has had repercussions, of course for the gay community but also for the national social and political scenes. It demonstrates how deeply a tragedy can penetrate and the degree to which we all incorporate our own sense of this tragedy into our lives.”
Sobel noted that while the play reveals some positive shifts in the culture following Shepard’s death — such as the defeat of a same-sex-marriage ban in Wyoming — it also demonstrates that some of the homophobia that motivated Shepard’s murder still exists in the town, which he said reflects the varying attitudes toward LGBT individuals across the country.
“Part of what this piece is doing is presenting different viewpoints on the question of if and how things have changed,” Sobel said. “The original work had such a national impact and people have seen themselves and their lives reflected in this community that was portrayed, so this goes far beyond Laramie. Has there been progress in the country in the past 10 years? Some people will say yes and others will say no or not enough. This piece is about furthering that dialogue.”
Sobel said the audience does not need to have seen the first work in order to appreciate the messages projected in the follow-up piece.
“If someone is familiar with the original play, then there’s a lot they can gain from this revisitation, but what is particularly remarkable is that they’ve managed to make a piece that stands on its own. Some of the cast members have not had a lot of experience with the original project, and they have found this piece to be very moving and insightful.”
“The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later — An Epilogue” will be performed at 6:30 and 9 p.m. Oct. 12 at Temple. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the theater’s box office between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday or by calling (215) 204-1334 or visiting www.temple.edu/sct/theater.