“In 20 years, when everyone has forgotten, what will we be doing?” This is the question student director for the Underdog Theatre Workshop Club (UTWC) Dakota Rose was faced with when deciding to produce the 20-year-old play “The Laramie Project.”
“The Laramie Project” is a piece of verbatim theatre written by Moises Kauffman and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project who traveled to Laramie, Wyoming in order to conduct interviews with the people of the town immediately following the death of Matthew Shepard. These interviews, news reports and the company members’ journal entries became the script for the show, ultimately featuring about 68 different characters in total performed by a small company of about 10 or 12.
Shepard was a 21-year-old college student majoring in political science with aspirations to help make the world a better place by fighting for acceptance of all people, but this was tragically taken away on the night of Oct. 7, 1998, when he was brutally beaten and left to die outside in the cold simply for being outspoken about a part of himself — that he was gay.
This tragedy and Shepard’s consequential death in Poudre Valley Hospital the morning of Oct. 12, 1998, took place exactly 21 years ago last week. It was important for the members of UTWC to perform the show within the week that Shepard was hospitalized and performances took place on Oct. 9 and 10 in the Reformed Church of New Paltz.
Now even 21 years later, this story is still an incredibly important one that needs to be told. The choice of the UTWC to perform the show almost 21 years to the date of Shepard’s passing was felt poignantly as the hate and bigotry that led to it have not gone away.
“This play took place so many years ago and the discrimination and prejudice people have for gay people is still so alive today that I initially thought this occurred in the past decade,” said audience member and second-year communication disorders major Kate Migliore. “Have we really moved forward that much? Are we as progressive as we think? Are we as inclusive as we think we are?”
“It’s a story that needs to be told no matter how progressive people think they are,” Assistant Director Maria Pauer said at a talkback immediately following Thursday night’s performance. “There’s still things that need to be learned, still things that need to be taught, stories that still need to be told and things we [still] need to understand.”
This opportunity for self-reflection and introspection was something the director felt was important for audience members to walk away with after viewing the performance.
“I want the audiences to come in, hear some hurtful things, some beautiful things and start to make a judgment about themselves like ‘what am I doing, what part of the conversation am I carrying?’” Rose said. “‘How can I effectively communicate with someone who is not within my views?’”
This idea of effectively communicating with those whose viewpoints differ from one’s own was one that was repeated throughout the show and talkback. The script featuring hundreds of different interviews from the citizens of Laramie does not omit those that are hateful, and though those words are difficult and upsetting to sit through and listen to — and one should not attempt to personally have a discussion with someone who is actively hateful towards them — their inclusion in the story is important.
“These are human beings who are complex, we need to understand who they are, where they came from and why this happened,” said cast member Kiana Duggan-Haas during Thursday’s talkback.
“Understanding the root of hatred and the source of hatred is how you bring about acceptance,” added another cast member, Ryan Alarid.
Ultimately, this show presents an important story with an important message that is still topical to this day. Matthew Shepard’s story is one that cannot and should not ever be forgotten.
“Part of our responsibility, I think, as human beings in this world is to tell stories and tell them correctly,” Alarid stated.