'Laramie Project' returns to Austin - and is still relevant
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things
Much has changed since 2002 when Zach Theatre first presented "The Laramie Project," the documentary-style play about the Wyoming city and how its citizens came to terms with the 1998 beating death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay university student who was brutalized and then left to die tied to a fence along a back country road.
Most formally, there's anti-hate crime legislation in the form of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The bill was jointly named for the racially motivated 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to his death in the East Texas town Jasper.
Much has not changed, too.
Last week, a former Rutgers University student, Dharun Ravi, was convicted in New Jersey of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, among other charges, after he used a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, having a romantic encounter with another man. A few days later, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
This weekend, Zach Theatre has launched a remount of its production of "The Laramie Project," with artistic director Dave Steakley assembling the same cast of favorite Austin actors who performed in the show 10 years ago.
"It feels even more present and relevant now," Steakley said recently of "The Laramie Project."
In an unusual approach to theater-making, New York-based playwright Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Company traveled to Laramie just two months after Shepard's murder. The troupe conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Laramie residents, the police who responded to the crime, Shepard's family and friends, and many others.
The result is a nearly three-hour play that unfolds in three acts and gives voice to some 60 different people who were in some way connected to the Shepard tragedy. Eight actors — at Zach the cast includes, Jaston Williams, Martin Burke, Meredith McCall and Sarah Richardson — portray multiple roles.
When Zach staged "The Laramie Project" in 2002, audiences lingered for the informal discussions held after every performance.
Normally a post-show discussion might last 30 minutes. But with "The Laramie Project" the discussion typically went on for more than hour.
"It was kind of a testament to how powerful and transformative the play is," Steakley said. "People absolutely needed to talk about it."
Post-show discussions will be held after every performance in the current run, too.
The discussion surrounding "The Laramie Project" didn't stop for the show's creators either. Ten years after Shepard's murder, they returned to Laramie for follow-up interviews. The result, "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," debuted as a staged reading simultaneously at theaters across the country on Oct. 12, 2009, the eleventh anniversary of Shepard's death.
Zach Theatre hosted a live reading of "Ten Years Later."
And now, Steakley is producing the first full-staged version of "Ten Years Later," opening on April 22. For several weeks, both the original play and its epilogue will run in repertoire. And on Saturdays between April 28 and May 13, it will be possible to see both shows back-to-back with a dinner break in between.
The productions are also aligned with Ballet Austin's three-month-long organization of performances and events that examine human rights centered around its own artistic examination of discrimination and triumph of the human spirit, the ballet "Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project."
"Both of (the Laramie plays) have a great deal of hope about to them," Steakley said.
"I think while there's a frustration with what can seem like the glacial speed it takes for the right to equality to becomes law in this country, it's enlightening and hopeful to see (that the events in Laramie) did change many people.
"But the message of equality still needs to be heard today."