Student production of The Laramie Project to usher in LGBT History Month

Posted September 25th, 2008 at 10:14 am.

When the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard drew the nation’s attention to the issue of hate crimes based on sexual orientation, Paige Walker ’09 never heard much about it. She was 10 years old, and most adults in her conservative community didn’t discuss such matters with children.

Paige Walker 09

Paige Walker '09

That sort of silence about the effects of homophobia is precisely what Walker hopes to counter with a student production of The Laramie Project. The play is based on interviews with people who were affected by the crime and its aftermath, including citizens of Laramie, Wyo., the city where Shepard was killed.

Walker, a veteran of the annual student productions of The Vagina Monologues, is directing the show; Elise Marraro ’10 serves as production head, and Steph Migliori ’09 as “Lights and Tech Guru.” The Office of Intercultural Affairs is sponsoring the performances as a kickoff event for LGBT History Month in October. Oct. 12 marks the 10th anniversary of Shepard’s death.

Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, was robbed, severely beaten, and tied to a fence in a remote rural area where he was left to die. Police who investigated the case suggested that Shepard had been targeted because of his sexuality, and the case drew national attention, especially from LGBT organizations and supporters of hate-crime legislation. An anti-gay group staged a demonstration at Shepard’s funeral, carrying signs with slogans such as “God Hates Fags” and “Matthew Shepard Rots in Hell.”

Shepard’s killers are now serving life sentences, after one pleaded guilty and another was convicted of felony murder and kidnapping.

About a month after Shepard’s death, the Tectonic Theater Project, led by Moisés Kaufman, began to interview people in Laramie. Tape recordings of those interviews, along with court records and personal journals, were the basis of the play’s script.

In the Bryn Mawr production, the play’s 55 characters are portrayed by nine actresses: Anisha Chirmule ’10, Aly Honsa ’09, Allison Keefe ’11, Jane Morris ’10, Amanda Preston ’09, Leah Kane Riseman ’09, Dina Rubey ’09, Megan Smith ’10, and Larken Wright-Kennedy ’11.

“Each character is represented by a singular prop and changes in the actor’s voice and demeanor,” Walker explains. “We didn’t conduct the interviews, so we can’t reproduce the gestures and voices of the characters, who are real people. So we don’t recreate the moment, but allude to it, as the play’s creator Moisés Kaufman says.”

“It’s a very demanding play for the performers,” Walker says. “Each one plays characters who are all over the map in terms of attitudes and emotions — sometimes two or more in the same scene.”

“The range of characters shows how so many different people were affected in so many different ways, whether they knew Matthew Shepard or not,” Marraro says.

“A lot of the play is about how a community is defined,” Walker adds. “People in Laramie had a hard time reconciling their own sense of what Laramie is about with the perception of the town as the site of a brutal hate crime. At the time, newscasts sometimes used graphics that showed the state of Wyoming dripping with blood.”

“But then one of the lines in the play that I found most powerful was from an older, closeted gay man who had felt very isolated by his sexuality. He saw a group of people marching in memory of Matthew Shepard in the University of Wyoming’s homecoming parade. By the end, that group was bigger than the whole parade. So his perception of the community changed, too, and he felt less isolated from it.”

“That focus on how community is defined and how individuals’ actions affect that system made the play seem perfect for Bryn Mawr,” Walker explains, “because we are very conscious of those issues in our own community.”

Performances of The Laramie Project will take place this Friday, Sept. 26, and Saturday, Sept. 27, at 8 p.m. in the gymnasium of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Walking groups from the College’s main campus to the GSSWSR will leave from Pem Arch at 7:15, 7:30, and 7:40 p.m.; vans will leave Pem Arch and do continuous runs from 7:15 til 7:50 p.m. Admission is open to the public and free, although the show’s organizers will be collecting voluntary donations to the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

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