Senior Peter Rule must focus his attention on the halo of lights coming down from the rafters so that he isn’t distracted by the sobbing audience below them. In “The Laramie Project,” Rule plays the role of Dennis Shepard. Shepard was the father of Matthew Shepard, a young college student who was found beaten and tortured outside of Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Matthew Shepard was killed in a hate crime against gay people.
“Yeah, I heard someone crying [during the Saturday show], as an actor that kind of response can be really rewarding … It’s really helpful that the lights are so bright and it’s really difficult to face the audience,” Rule said. “And the lights are some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
For Rule himself, playing a character who had gone through such an enormous loss was a challenge. He too broke down during the scene where Dennis Shepard gives a courtroom statement about losing his son.
“At the read-through I was actually crying pretty hard. It was really hard to get through,” Rule said. “When I found myself crying, it was Peter Rule crying. Now [after working on the scene] I’m performing Dennis Shepard’s reaction to his son’s murder.”
“The Laramie Project,” was written by Moiss Kaufman and other members of the Tectonic Theatre. According to Rule, the play isn’t so much a play about Matthew Shepard as it is about the impact his death had on the town of Laramie. Kaufman and Belber, as well as other members of the Tectonic Theater Project travelled to Shepard’s hometown to conduct a series of interviews with Laramie residents.
Interviewees included pastors, LGBTQ residents of Wyoming and people who knew Shepard. Though many of the characters agree that Shepard’s death was tragic, other characters like the Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist church continue to condemn Matthew Shepard.
Sophomore Jo Hill, a master electrician for rep term and one of the actors in “The Laramie Project” shared that a soft “homey” light design was chosen for the play. This was so that viewers could get a small town feel from the set. Lighting was also key in setting the emotional tone for scenes such as the Shepard vigil and the courtroom scene. In the play, Hill played one of Matthew Shepard’s close friends, Romaine Patterson. Hill was able to channel some of the anger she felt while researching Matthew Shepard’s story into her performance.
“[Romaine Patterson] is an activist and a protestor so I have a very unique opportunity within the cast to express some of the frustration I’m feeling,” Hill said. “It’s a little bit cathartic.”
“I want to include their names and pictures because I think it’s important not to forget those people,” Hill said. “Not everyone has a play written about them.”
For sophomore Emma Bohman, another actress in the play, finding out that there has been no hate-crime legislation passed in Wyoming since Matthew’s murder was heartbreaking, and also made her angry.
“There is a sequel to this play and it takes place 10 years later. Basically sort of the summary is that nothing had changed. I mean, some things have changed: there were gay bars in Laramie they have drag [competitions], but there is no legislation. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a ways to go,” Bohman said.
Assistant Director senior Ollie Jeoung is also troubled by the lack of anti-hate crime legislation. As a transgender man, learning things haven’t changed much since Matthew Shepard’s death has been terrifying.
“As a transgender, pansexual person, [the play] is very emotional to me because I have a connection to them and other LGBTQ victims of hate crime,” Jeoung said. “Given the current political situation, especially with all of the laws that have been passed like banning transgender people from the military, the play is very relevant.”
For Rule, the play has made him a lot more aware of what LGBTQ people face in America. Rule believes that Matthew Shepard has become something of a symbol because of how much attention his death got in the media.
“There are murders everyday and we don’t think about them. It’s hard coming to grips with that,” Rule said.
For Jeoung, the chilling reality of “The Laramie Project” is that it shows how a brutal crime like the murder of Shepard can happen anywhere.
“It’s a small town and it could be anywhere else in America. It didn’t happen just because it was Laramie and see the town as more than just Wyoming, I see it as what America is at the moment,” Jeoung said.