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'The Laramie Project,' 10 years later

The Associated Press, Thursday, October 1, 2009, 2:44pm (PDT)

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) -- Ten years after bringing the story of Matthew Shepard's murder to the stage, creators of "The Laramie Project" have produced an epilogue about the lingering aftermath of the savage attack and its effect on a Western town.

Members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie last fall to interview many of the same people they talked to in 1999 about the brutal beating of Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming.

"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later — An Epilogue" will be performed simultaneously on about 150 stages on Oct. 12, the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death.

"It seemed like a really good opportunity to test our theory that theater could be used to promote a dialogue and social change," Greg Reiner, Tectonic's executive director, says.

"And we ourselves just wanted to know the answers to all the questions that we pose in the play: What's changed in the last 10 years? What kind of progress have we made as a country?"

In a case that outraged gay activists and many others, Shepard was kidnapped, robbed and pistol-whipped by two men he met in a bar. Police said Shepard, whose bloodied body was left tied to a rural fence, was targeted because he was gay.

The original play "The Laramie Project" is still performed regularly by schools and theater companies across the country, and inspired an HBO movie in 2002. The Laramie Police Department is contacted at least six times a year by groups requesting department patches for costumes in their productions, Chief Dale Stalder says.

Moises Kaufman, creator of "The Laramie Project," says he and the other writers were no longer anonymous theater producers when they returned to Laramie last year. While the conversation a decade ago was about the murder, this time Kaufman explored how the event has changed the town of 27,600.

"I think that in that sense, we found people to be very eager to talk to us and also some people who said, 'Why are we going back to this? We moved on,'" Kaufman says.

The epilogue incorporates a prison interview with Aaron McKinney, one of two men convicted of murder in Shepard's death. McKinney and Russell Henderson were sentenced in 1999 to life in prison. The interview was conducted by Greg Pierotti, an actor/writer who helped create the original docudrama.

Tectonic will perform the epilogue at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall with the original cast members of the play and the film. More than 1,600 miles west in Laramie, the University of Wyoming Department of Theater and Dance will be one of the groups holding a concurrent reading of the epilogue.

Department Chair Leigh Selting placed an ad in the local newspaper to solicit actors as part of an effort to make the reading a community event.

Tectonic's Oct. 12 production will include a 20-minute introduction given by Kaufman, Shepard's mother Judy Shepard and others, broadcast over the Internet to participating theaters, Reiner says. Then, after the individual theaters conduct their own readings of the epilogue, the New York stage will broadcast live again for a national question-and-answer session with the production's writers and actors. Reiner said participants around the country will be able to pose questions on Twitter.

In Laramie, the theater will hold its own discussion after the reading.

"I thought it was important to have our local voices in play," says Selting, who hopes the event opens a conversation about Shepard's murder and the way a community responds to tragedy. "We wanted to have that opportunity rather than just turn the lights off and go home."

One of the Laramie panelists will be Dave O'Malley, a former Laramie police chief who investigated the Shepard killing. In the years after the murder, O'Malley has spoken around the country as a proponent of federal hate crime legislation. Congress has not passed the proposed Matthew Shepard Act.

O'Malley, who was interviewed for the epilogue, says Laramie wasn't "broken" before the murder, but he's seen subtle changes since, such as the annual AIDS walk, a gay resource center at the university and the gay-straight alliance at the high school.

"Laramie got a huge black eye initially as a result of this and I think the community responded unbelievably," he says. "We shouldn't take it personal anymore. I think it keeps coming back up because the issues are still there. I mean, you could put a different face on it. It doesn't have to have Matt's face on it anymore."

Cathy Connolly, a women's studies professor at the University of Wyoming will also be part of the panel discussion after the Laramie reading. As the first openly gay professor at the university and a Democratic member of the Wyoming House of Representatives, Connolly was featured as a character in the original play. She said it's "vital" for a community discussion about homophobia and gay rights to continue.

She pointed out that UW does not offer domestic benefits for same-sex couples, and that Wyoming state law doesn't contain penalty enhancements for bias-motivated crimes or include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination statutes.

As time passes, Connolly says, the idea that Shepard was murdered as part of a robbery or drug deal gone bad, and not the victim of a hate crime, has gained traction.

"Letting old wounds fester and heal incorrectly is bad," she says. "Instead, we should really be trying to clean them out and taking care of problems and issues so that we can all move on better."

Kaufman says writers of the epilogue have grappled with how to measure change in a community.

"Is it by the number of laws that have been passed? Is it by the number of monuments that have been erected, or is it by the number of people who have changed their minds or have found a new way of looking at the world?" Kaufman says. "When you look at all that together, then you get a sense for what change means and how change occurs. Hopefully, the play addresses all those complications."

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On the Net:

The Laramie Project, http://community.laramieproject.org/

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