When Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, tortured, and bound to a fence post outside of Laramie, Wyoming, on a freezing night in October 1998, today's teenagers were either yet unborn or still in diapers. The 21-year-old's death and the trial that followed attracted worldwide media interest and emboldened the nation to fight bigotry and hatred. Nearly 17 years later, Shepard continues to serve as an emblem for the LGBT community—as well as the young thespians at Redmond High School, who are preparing to bring the story of his death to their auditorium stage.
Over two weekends in April, The Panther Theatre Company at Redmond High School will stage The Laramie Project, a play written about the aftermath of the young gay man's death by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Created from a year's worth of interviews conducted by Tectonic in the town of Laramie, the play is a time capsule chronicling the reactions of a small college town gripped by the brutal hate crime. It's one of the most preformed plays in the country, and has garnered acclaim, as well as criticism, for its message of combating homophobia.
Hilda Beltran-Wagner is the director of the drama program at Redmond High School and is providing technical direction for The Laramie Project. She was looking to stage a serious dramatic play—the last one, Grapes of Wrath, was performed four years ago—when the program's assistant director Rachel Sarrett suggested this production.
"Sarrett was the brain behind proposing Laramie, and when she suggested it, it just felt right," said Beltran-Wagner. "Our community is really a lot like Laramie, demographically...if we are going to be rigorous, relevant, and inclusive—and I borrow all these terms from our mission—it seems to me that we have to have a vision that includes this kind of material."
As Beltran-Wagner explained, the Redmond School District's stated mission is to "ensure all stakeholders feel valued and respected." According to Sarrett, the creative force behind Laramie and the play's director, the stakeholders' response to her "brainchild" was overwhelmingly positive.
"I thought that since we serve a somewhat conservative community, gaining acceptance for the opportunity to perform this material would be a struggle, but in reality, it's been nothing but support from our administration, faculty, and parents," said Sarrett.
The play's challenging structure—more than 80 citizen "characters" will be portrayed by just 15 actors—gave the young troupe opportunities to strengthen their acting chops while examining issues such as bullying, violence, homophobia, and community identity.
"Prior to auditions, I worried about teenagers' ability to access the complex emotions in this script—how can a kid know what this town went through?" said Sarrett. "But they get it...the message in the Laramie Project is so universal; kids know what hate looks like."
The production has inspired students outside of the drama program as well; a group of RHS Leadership students are creating an installation connecting bullying to hate crimes. For the school's principle, Anthony Pupo, the script had current-event implications in the climate of violence and confusion gripping communities in the wake of recent police shootings.
"His first reaction was to connect it with what's been going on in Ferguson," said Beltran-Wagner. "I said, 'It's controversial' and he said, 'It's relevant.'"
To stage Laramie, the high school's lofty large-capacity auditorium has been transformed into a 72-seat black box theater, creating a stark intimacy and "anyplace" quality to the play that gives events that transpired more than 16 years ago and a thousand miles away relevance to the audience.
"For me, it's really exciting when we get students to see that theater is less about jazz hands than it is about heart," said Beltran-Wagner. "This is what theater can do; it's what we can do. There's nothing more inspiring than that."
"This play, ultimately, is about what it means to be a human being, what it means to live in a community with people of various faiths, backgrounds, and experiences," said Sarrett. "High schools are rife with judgment, and I hope that after viewing the play, our students and community get closer to understanding that we're all in this together."
The Laramie Project
7 pm Friday & Saturday, April 10 & 11, 17 & 18
Redmond High School, 675 SW Rimrock Way
$10 adults, $5 students