The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later
Arts Centre Melbourne presents a Red Stitch Theatre production
16 May 2012
Fairfax studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
I have family who used to live in Snowtown; they don't tell people that anymore. Truro, Port Arthur, Colombine; it only takes one word to recall the horrific violence associated with these places.
In 1998, Laramie in Wyoming, USA, made headlines when Matthew Shepard was tied to a fence, repeatedly beaten and left to die on the outskirts of the town. He died six days later and the media descended on this small town, once best-known for its university, but remembered for being nothing exciting.
People are killed daily in the US from robberies gone wrong and domestic violence; however, Laramie struck a chord because Matthew's was targeted and tortured because he was gay. Matthew's family are still lobbying to have the Hate Crimes Prevention Act accepted by the US government.
In November 1998, Tectonic Theater Project from New York travelled to Laramie and conducted interviews that were used to create The Laramie Project, a play and later an HBO film. It's become one of the most performed plays in America and continues as an active online community. In 2009, the company returned to Laramie to see what had happened over the last 10 years and the epilogue work premiered simultaneously in 100 US venues.
Red Stitch presented The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later in 2011 and were invited by The Arts Centre to re-stage this fascinating and important work.
Director Gary Abrahams guides an exceptional cast (Paul Ashcroft, Roderick Cairns, Ella Caldwell, Terry Camilleri, Kate Cole, Chris Connely, Brett Luderman, Rosie Traynor and Hester Van Der Vyer) in a telling that places it firmly in the US, but ensures that Laramie isn't far from our own homes. The company's passion for the project and their anger about the crime flows off the stage, but it's ultimately a performance that leaves us with hope.
It's almost impossible to discuss the work without discussing the crime, but there is an abundance of information and commentary easily available, and this style of verbatim or documentary theatre is created to be close to its subject. Still much of its success lies in its creation of distance. By making the process a part of its story, with the interviewees as characters alongside the people of Laramie, it's able to comment and bring strangers, who are like us, into the town.
Ten years later, Matthew's friends are still hurting (ten years really is nothing), many involved in the case are still suffering, while others, including the respected current affairs show 20/20, are re-writing the story as a robbery gone wrong, and younger people don't even know who Matthew Shepard was. With a spine exploring stories and ownership and truth, this second work continues to tap directly into our lives, but its guts is the inclusion of the voices of the young men who killed Matthew.
It's too easy to leave out this voice and demonise these two men, but to do so would leave it without hope. They weren't freaks or psychopaths. They were two men who lived in a community that didn't question their belief that poofs are freaks. I know people who think like that: "I spose you must know a lot of THEM working in the arts." These are not bad people; they just live in a very different bubble to mine – and no one likes having their bubble burst.
As Matthew's father requested that the death penalty not be applied to their sentence and Father Roger Schmit befriended the killer, 10 Years Later leaves us with no choice but to listen with as much respect as possible and to find the understanding that is going to help us to continue to try and create a world where everyone is safe and respected.