In November 1998, gay university student Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyoming. His shocking death prompted members of the New York-based Tectonic Theatre Project to travel to Laramie and conduct interviews with the people of the town. The company returned to Laramie six times and conducted more than 200 interviews. Those texts became the play “The Laramie Project.”
Ten years later, five members of Tectonic returned to Laramie to try to understand the long-term effect of the murder. In addition to revisiting the people originally interviewed, they also spoke with Shepard’s convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, as well as Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard. “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” or “LP: 10” is the result.
The play, directed by Rick Boal, opens in Spokane on Friday at Stage Left Theater.
Boal, development director for the Modern Theater, said he was drawn to the play because the issues facing the LGBT community are still very much alive.
“A few weeks ago, Steven Nelson was kicked to death by four men near Nampa,” he said, referring to the murder and robbery of an openly gay man in Idaho.
The timeliness of the production was also noted by Michael Jepson, OutSpokane chairman.
“While much has improved since the senseless murder of Matthew Shepard, the rewriting of this tragic history is an illustration of the struggles faced by the LGBT+ communities,” he wrote in an email.
He said Washington state’s Initiative 1515, and bills and initiatives across the U.S. “that attack our trans friends and neighbors … illustrate the need to continue to work for safety and equality for all members of our community.”
OutSpokane is partnering with Stage Left, using the production as a launch for Spokane’s 25th Pride Celebration, which features the Pride Parade and Rainbow Festival on June 11.
“It ties in well with our theme of ‘Pride25: From Silence to Celebration,’ ” Jepson said.
While the play is a political and human drama piece, Boal said he’s excited about its theatrical potential.
“I saw that this was a play that’s very fluid – with a lot of movement.”
Unlike typical productions of “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later,” this production won’t feature actors sitting on stools.
“That was my number one rule,” Boal said. “No stools on the stage.”
Instead, the nine actors playing 56 roles will be in motion with entrances and exits on a multilevel set.
“It’s been quite a challenge for the actors,” Boal said. “The play is made of moments, not classic scenes. It moves quickly and will engage people differently than a traditional performance.”
Boal’s production also includes a multimedia element, featuring slides and videos on three screens with a soundscape he created adding to the emotional punch of the play.
But make no mistake: “LP: 10” is gripping in its own right in its depiction of a town coming to terms with its legacy and its place in history.
“Watching people rewrite history the way they think it should be – such massive denial,” Boal said. “It’s so powerful. All the words are quotes from the interviews.”
He said he anticipates a lot of sold-out shows at the 70-seat theater.
“Aside from the LGBT and theater community, I hope friends and family members of LGBT folks will come,” Boal said. “It will give them a bigger scope and they’ll know they’re not alone.”
And Steven Nelson is not forgotten. The dedication in the program reads, “Steven E. Nelson: 18 Years Later. Add the words, Idaho.”