“I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.” —Dennis Shepard
2018 marks 20 years since Matthew Shepard’s death.
CSU Theatre is presenting The Laramie Project, the seminal production about the Wyoming student’s murder, from Sept. 28 through Oct. 7, at the University Center for the Arts. Tickets are available online at csuartstickets.com.
Matthew Shepard was a son, brother and student at the University of Wyoming, and a vibrant spirit who was taken from the world too soon. He was just 21 years old when his life ended due to the senseless actions of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. On Oct. 6, 1998, he was kidnapped, brutally beaten, tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, and passed away six days later in Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. This tragedy was deemed a hate crime due to the fact that McKinney and Henderson admitted murdering Shepard because he was openly gay and an advocate for the LGBT community.
A month after Shepard’s death, Tectonic Theatre Project founder Moisés Kaufman and various members of the group started interviewing people in Laramie, and completed more than 200 conversations over the course of the following year. These interviews were used to write the script for The Laramie Project, depicting how the residents of Laramie reacted to Matthew Shepard’s murder, and how his death impacted the town.
In February 2000, The Laramie Project’s premiere performance took place at the Denver Center for the Preforming Arts. That same year, the play was also performed in New York City, and two years later was performed in Laramie, Wyoming. To this day, The Laramie Project is one of the most performed plays in the nation.
A difficult play
Guest directed by freelance director and former theatre professor at the University of California at San Diego Charlie Oates, it’s the second time CSU Theatre has taken on the complex script. The first time was spring 2006, during the opening year of the Bohemian Complex, the area of the University Center for the Arts (UCA) that contains the University Theatre. There are 10 total cast members for CSU’s current version of the production, and each member takes on multiple roles.
Senior theatre major Ryan Volkert plays a number of characters, including Sargent Hing, Matt Galloway, the Baptist minister, Murdock Cooper, Aaron McKinney, and Dennis Shepard. Volkert said his role as Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, is the most impactful role he plays because although Shepard only has one monologue in the show, his message in that moment is extremely powerful.
Volkert explains that not all aspects of this play, however, are sad or solemn. His variety of character types allows him to express different emotions and energy throughout the play. Overall, Volkert has enjoyed working on The Laramie Project because it has been a great challenge as an actor to portray real people.
“The subject matter is serious, but the content of the play goes back and forth between serious, or just straight facts, and some of the characters are actually kind of funny. It’s not heavy all the time, which has been helpful,” Volkert said.
The physical connection to the story is real for Volkert, and the story’s relationship to Fort Collins hits close to home for many, even 20 years later.
“Matthew Shepard actually died in Poudre Valley Hospital, which is right here … I know exactly where that is, and I can picture the hospital, and where Rulon Stacey, who was CEO of the hospital at the time, would be giving press conferences. So that physically brings it home,” he explained.
Volkert was not familiar with Matthew Shepard’s story before being cast, but realizes the change it has sparked in him.
For Volkert, one of the most important things about the play, and what makes it unique, is that the characters are based on actual news reels and interviews, which changes the way he portrays each one.
“You have to humanize each character and give them the representation of who they are, and let it speak for itself,” Volkert explained. “It’s helped me in my own characterizations to play these real people because you can’t make them larger than life. You have to be human.”
Not only has playing multiple roles helped advance his acting skills, being in The Laramie Project has changed Volkert as a person.
“[Playing several parts is] teaching me a lot about being human as an actor and a person in society,” Volkert said. “Everybody has their own thing going on and some people may not like it, but it’s OK if you’re not bothering other people. You don’t have to support what others believe in, but you also don’t have to actively prevent them from being who they are. It’s showing me that there are multiple sides to people, and everyone should be taken for who they are.”
Cast member and senior theatre major Sydney Fleischman plays six characters: a reporter; a waitress; Romain Patterson, a good friend of Matthew; Islamic feminist Zubaida Ula; Aaron Kreifels, the boy who found Matthew; and Jen, Aaron McKinney’s friend. Fleischman’s strategy for getting her head around these different roles was by reading through the play over and over.
“When I first started preparing for my roles, I realized I couldn’t be super-emotional because it would affect my well-being and my mental health,” Fleischman said. “When I read the play for the first time, I cried a lot, and I knew that had to be the last time I felt that emotional before stepping into rehearsals. … I try my best to focus those emotions onto my characters and not on myself. … I get to feel those strong emotions, just as a different person.”
Addressing hate through peace
Fleischman has a strong connection to the story because hate crimes are still prevalent in today’s society. She believes these abhorrent acts must be addressed through peace.
“What makes me so sad about [Matthew’s] death is that he was so young,” she said. “In the play, it is stated that Matthew wanted to go into human rights, and in a way he kind of did. His death brought to light the issue of hate, and I honestly think he’d be proud of the events that occurred after his death, such as ‘Angel Action,’ led by Romaine Patterson,” she explained.
The “Angel Action” was a peaceful protest that took place in Laramie after Shepard’s death, opposing the protests against homosexuality. The demonstration involved groups of people dressed as angels who would wrap their “wings” around families and passersby to “protect” them from the wounding words of Fred Phelps, minister of the Westboro Baptist Church, as he protested homosexuality.
For Fleischman, The Laramie Project is not only a way of remembering and honoring Matthew’s life, but should inspire audiences to make a positive difference in the world. “This play shows how we can fight hate using peace and love. The play also gives audiences time to reflect on their own values and ideals, which I believe is a huge accomplishment all on its own,” Fleischman said.
Making an impact
Jake Cuddemi plays nine characters in The Laramie Project, including Stephen Belber; Doc O’Connor; Jefferey Lockwood, a news reporter; Bill McKinney; Conrad Miller; Andrew Gomez; Fred Phelps; and a Mormon spiritual advisor. The senior theatre major faces the challenge of playing characters such as Phelps, who have ideologies and beliefs with which he does not agree.
“Most of my characters are biased against the gay community, or don’t have a specific perspective on the gay community in Laramie. I have to make sure that my values and beliefs don’t bleed into the characters’ values and beliefs, so I can more accurately portray them,” Cuddemi explained. “especially since characters like Fred Phelps are real people that many Americans are familiar with. … I have to put my beliefs aside and play him truthfully and authentically.”
Dennis Shepard’s speech in Act III has major significance to Cuddemi. “His words are so well spoken, and his intent with the speech is so on the money to me. It articulates exactly how to move forward in light of the tragic event,” he explained. In the speech, Shepard speaks about mercy and forgiveness, even toward those who have wronged others; Shepard’s message to the audience is to be the bigger person.
Cuddemi looks forward to affecting the community through The Laramie Project and hopes the impact of CSU’s version matches the original intent of the play.
The Laramie Project is taking place at the University Center for the Arts on Sept. 28, 29, Oct. 4, 5, 6 at 7:30 p.m., with matinees on Sept. 30 and Oct. 7 at 2 p.m. Tickets are no charge for CSU students, $10 for adults, and can be reserved online at csuartstickets.com or at the UCA box office Monday-Friday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
Jason Marsden, executive director of The Matthew Shepard Foundation, is hosting a discussion following the performance on Sunday, Oct. 7. More information about The Laramie Project and The Matthew Shepard Foundation can be found at matthewshepard.org.
Story by By Emily Kaiser, UCA Publicity Intern