In October 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left to die tied to a fence outside of Laramie, WY, the victim of a horrific anti-gay hate crime. Over the next year, the story of his death was documented by Moisés Kaufman and a team of writers and actors from the Tectonic Theater Company of New York City. The Company took six trips to Laramie after the murder where they interviewed members of the community and people close to Matthew, constructing the critically acclaimed play, The Laramie Project, from transcriptions of these first-hand accounts. The play was published in 2000, and it has been in rehearsal or production every day, ever since, all over the world.
Barbara Pitts McAdams of Tectonic Theater Company, an original cast member and co-creator of The Laramie Project,visited CCHS Theatre on October 21 to work with cast and crew on their upcoming production of the play. Barbara was not one of the first actors on the scene in Laramie after the murder, but arrived later, about a year into the project, having transcribed nearly 200 hours of interviews before she ever stepped foot in the town.
She gathered CCHS Theatre students into a circle on stage and encouraged them to ask questions about Laramie, her experience there and the construction of the play.
Barbara arrived in Laramie in time for the University of Wyoming annual homecoming parade in 1999. While the people she met were strangers, they were strangely familiar since she had transcribed their accounts of the Shepard murder.
“My first impression of Laramie was a little surreal. It felt like I was walking into a novel I knew really well.”
Asked who were some of the most impactful characters she met, Barbara mentioned Father Roger Schmit. Father Roger was a local priest who was accepting of LGBT people despite official views of the Catholic church, and who organized a vigil for Shepard after his death. Schmit, who becomes the moral compass of The Laramie Project, taught the importance of compassion and acceptance over condemning homosexuality. “I saw him and immediately started to cry,” said McAdams. Father Roger warmly responded, “Oh, I just think this is wonderful.”
Other characters who made a strong impression on Barbara include Zubaida Ula, a Muslim American university student who faced criticism for wearing a veil, and who advocated for her community to face their flaws rather than deny them. Barbara also recalled Aaron McKenney, one of two men charged in Shepard’s murder. She first saw him in the courtroom during his trial and was struck by his blank expression and “dead eyes of a sociopath, not a person who could be rehabilitated.”
Members of the cast and crew shared their own experiences from rehearsals this fall. Several students felt like play has unified the cast, the story bringing the cast together to do something important. Other students noted that they feel safe and that there is always a cast member there to comfort them if they are upset. Despite facing the challenging moral issues in this play, students feel there is still hope even in the darkest of times.
CCHS Theatre Director Melissa Charych said she first thought about bringing an actor from Tectonic to CCHS because she wanted the students to have a first-hand connection to Laramie and the events that occurred there. “I wanted students to have an opportunity to learn more about their characters from someone who knew them personally. Laramie contains complex and difficult subject matter for teen actors, so being able to ask questions about the town of Laramie, their characters and how the play was constructed will help them connect to their roles and further unify the ensemble.”
After the Q&A, Barbara invited students to join her in some Moment Work, the devising technique that Tectonic Theater Company used to create original play. She explained that Moment Work is a process that explores and utilizes all elements of the stage on an equal footing with the text. Barbara told students, “You’re encouraged, as the actor, designer, whoever you might come into the room identifying as, to think: ‘Okay, what do I think in the material we’re exploring is so compelling I have to make moments about it?’ And you don’t have to know where they’re going to fit, if they’re going to fit. And then what we love is what we continue to drill down into.”
Melissa Charych summed up her visit after the workshop: “In The Laramie Project, Father Roger Schmit says of Matthew Shepard's story, ‘Just deal with what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct.’ Barbara was the person to help us ‘say it correct.’ While we learned from Barb about Tectonic's Moment Work approach, she also helped us connect to the very real people behind this very important story.”
This article was published in The Carlisle Mosquito on October 30, 2019: https://www.carlislemosquito.org/index.php/search/?id=35624