The Laramie Project is a piece of verbatim theatre written by Moises Kaufman, in memory and response to the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. A unique way of storytelling, verbatim uses the exact words of a cross section of people connected in different ways to the event, including family members, police workers, local priests, and fellow students. To gain this material, the Tectonic Theatre Company carried out interviews with over sixty community members to tell the tragic story of Shepard’s death and its aftermaths which shocked the US.
The piece has since been performed internationally to tackle homophobia and to fight against what has been deemed as a hate crime, and this week saw the Stage@Leeds Company perform their stunning version. Working with both language and content so rooted in a devastating reality provides a challenge to any company or performer. However, produced as part of the UK’s LGBT History Month, the cast rose to the challenge with sensitivity, precision and passion. As one of the interviewees in the play explains, spreading Matthew’s story shows how good can come from evil, and this could not be more realised as is done so beautifully in this production.
Simplicity was the key to the performance, with a luminous sky blue backdrop that quite rightly allowed the words and opinions of the characters to paint the setting and tell the story. In a similar way, the actors wore their own casual clothes. Rather than being associated with a particular character, they moved, along with plain wooden chairs, between multiple scenes. This basic and adaptable set was particularly effective as the chairs were balanced against each other in a line across the back of the stage to symbolise the fence Shepard was tied to as he was beaten and left to die. Against the stark backdrop, the cold Wyoming landscape was chillingly emulated as descriptions of finding the barely living body were spoken and friends visited the site of the disaster.
A particularly powerful moment was when a few cast members walked silently across the stage as an interviewee described a protest memory walk. He told how the march had increased five-fold, as an increased number of cast members walked back across the stage to mirror his description. The simplicity of this poignant imitation also transferred the spine-tingling awe felt by the narrator at the power of the day’s events, to a humming instrumental soundtrack.
After the interval, the third act saw the actors dressed in black as the trial and funeral were recounted. The tone took a more solemn turn compared with the surprisingly light-hearted opening act which necessarily served as a more factual introduction. Members of the Westboro Baptist church, holding shockingly disturbing signs reading ‘God Hates Fags’, picketed the funeral. As it happened in reality, the performance movingly combated this as three activists dressed as white angels with giant wings blocked the signs, with the rest of the cast sang ‘Amazing Grace’ to drown out the hateful picketers.
Such moving moments served as a chilling suggestion that, as one of the interviewees described, such hate crime was not only the responsibility of the murderers, but a society which allowed it to happen: ‘we are like this,’ she said. The sensitivity with which the Stage@Leeds Company performed served as their own protest and a reminder of the ongoing importance and relevance of telling this story. As a debut performance by the company, one can only wait with anticipation for what is to come.