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‘Laramie’ explores lasting impacts

Theater group’s follow-up project considers reverberations of Matthew Shepard’s beating death

In November 1998, members of New York City’s Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie, Wyo., a sleepy small town west of Cheyenne. Five weeks before their visit, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old Laramie native, had died after being severely beaten in a secluded rural area.

His two attackers, who also robbed and tortured him, are serving life sentences. It became apparent that Shepard was killed because he was gay, and the case stirred a heated discussion of hate crimes and homophobia in America.

Tectonic compiled its extensive interviews with Laramie residents into a stage play called “The Laramie Project,” which examined the aftershocks of hatred, intolerance and violence that shook an insular community. Since its premiere in 2000, the acclaimed “The Laramie Project” has been performed all over the world, and in 2002 it was adapted into an Emmy-nominated HBO feature starring Laura Linney, Christina Ricci, Steve Buscemi, Janeane Garofalo and Peter Fonda.

A decade after Shepard’s murder, Tectonic returned to Laramie to follow up with their initial subjects and see how they and their surroundings had evolved. They expected to gather enough material for a brief, supplemental epilogue, but what they got was enough to inspire an entirely new play, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.”

The drama department at North Idaho College, which produced the original “Laramie Project” in 2010, is now taking a crack at “Ten Years Later.” NIC theater instructor Joe Jacoby, who directed both productions, said this sequel is less about the crime and more about the ripple effects it caused in the years since it occurred.

“ ‘The Laramie Project’ really explores Matt Shepard and the murder,” Jacoby said. “Laramie is more the focus of this new show … and how they’re either accepting or rejecting the circumstances from 1998.”

He’s referring in part to the residents’ reactions to a controversial segment that aired on the news show “20/20” in 2004, which questioned whether Shepard’s sexuality was the motivating force behind his murder. It claimed that the crime was drug-related and speculated that Shepard was a methamphetamine dealer, and Jacoby said that “Ten Years Later” deals with this conflicting theory and how Laramie residents interpret it.

“You get a lot of different viewpoints, and that’s one of the great, valuable things to me,” he said. “They really respect the variety of views, even if they make an argument with them. They don’t dilute them, and they don’t write them in a way to make them weaker.”

But the most important aspect of both “Laramie Project” plays, which present Tectonic’s interviews verbatim, is how we respond to hate: Some of us internalize or ignore it, some feed off of it, some learn from it, but nobody goes unchanged.

“Hate takes on a lot of different forms and a lot of different colors,” Jacoby said. “We find it operating in subtle ways in all kinds of applications, and as human beings we’re all susceptible. … This incident has sparked positive action and positive change, and it’s had a constructive effect. But we still have a long way to go.”