It has been just over 20 years since 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered, reportedly for his sexual orientation, in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming.
After his death created headlines across the country, Moises Kaufmann and members of the Tectonic Theater Project penned “The Laramie Project,” which focuses on the impact the college student's murder had on the small town.
The Drama/Tech Department at Mira Costa High School is tackling “The Laramie Project” for the second time with Jonathan Westerberg directing beginning Friday, Nov. 2.
Westerberg has taught English at the high school for 19 years, as well as some drama classes, but he returned to the drama department this semester as drama coach and director of extracurricular activities. He directed “The Laramie Project” at Mira Costa for the first time in 2003.
“We wanted to revisit his story to consider where we’ve come, how far we’ve come in terms of our conversations about sexual identity and how far we have yet to go,” Westerberg said. “Things have become more complex in our conversations about sexual identity as transgender issues have really taken more president over our examination over… heterosexuality and homosexuality.”
When Shepard's tortured, nearly lifeless body was found tied to a fence post in near freezing weather more than 20 years ago, and two young men were arrested for the crime, it had a profound effect on the people of Laramie as well as the entire country.
“The Laramie Project” was written after 200 interviews with various Laramie residents and people close to Shepard. The play has been one of the most produced works in theater, and was also turned into a HBO movie.
Introducing Laramie to a new generation
Because of his familiarity with the play, Westerberg said it was easy for him to forget that the students weren't familiar with the material and had not been acclimated to it.
“These kids were born after Matthew's death, so we’re dealing with a generation that’s now once removed from it,” Westerberg said. “The first read through that we had, it struck me how I perhaps hadn’t prepared them for the material... they all went through the audition process. But by the time we finished the first read through… this took an emotional toll.”
Senior Hannah Ryan is one of 20 actors playing 50 roles in “The Laramie Project.” She plays four roles and said the challenge, even though she was familiar with the play, was realizing she was portraying real people.
“You have to tread very carefully when performing in a show like this because we're portraying real people first of all, we have to do them justice,” Ryan said. “It's very easy for the meaning of the show to get skewed... if you were to perform something in a way that could be seen as insensitive.”
Senior Scott Baxter, who plays a Baptist minister not sympathetic to Shepard's murder as well as a limousine driver, said it was eye opening learning about Laramie.
“It's important to understand not just what our nation is like on the local level, but everywhere,” Baxter said. “Laramie is radically different from Hermosa Beach, but it's an important part of our nation. It's critical we take into account everywhere when we're trying to move our country forward.”
Real life examples
For the cast to better understand Laramie and what the mindset of the country was like 20 years ago, Westerberg brought in the mother of a student who had worked at a trauma center which handles patients who were HIV positive or had developed AIDS. Another student has a grandmother who lived in Laramie when Shepard was killed and explained how the town was “torn apart.”
“She was almost like a character in the play,” said Westerberg of the grandmother. “This play is so much about people being interviewed and talking about what happened to Matthew Shepard. Mathew Shepard appears anywhere in the play. This is more a play about Laramie’s reaction to the events themselves.”
Sophi Boylan tackles being a stage manager for the first time with “The Laramie Project.” She said the main challenge was to “serve the story justice.”
“The power of theater is that we're trying to show a group of people that this still happens today,” Boylan said. “I think what I'm really going to take away from the show is just the power of story... people cry every rehearsal. The statement that we're making is very important and something I'm going to take away with me forever.”
Westerberg said he feels conversations about “otherness,” whether its gender, race, class or religion, has “gone backwards.”
“Or many of these voices are being unearthed that have always been there, but now feel emboldened to be able to speak,” Westerberg said. “On one way this is a play about a town’s wrestling with a hate crime over someone’s homosexuality. On another hand, I think it's a play that forces us to examine how we hold biases, how we act on our biases and how hatred at any moment can resurface and the unspeakable can happen over anything, not just sexual identity.”
Performances of “The Laramie Project” take place Friday, Nov. 2, at 7:30 pm..; Saturday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 4 p..m., Thursday, Nov. 8, at 6:30 p.m.; Friday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m.
Due to limited seating in the theater, tickets will be sold specific dates and times. Pre-sale tickets are $12 for adults, or $10 for students or seniors. Tickets at the box office are $15 for adult or $12 for student or senior. The November 7 show is special student show where tickets are discounted for $5 for students at any school.
For more information,visit miracostadramaboosters.org.