In the small town where he lived, there is no memorial to Matthew Shepard. The fence post where he, an openly gay man of 21, hung dying for some 18 hours, tied up after being pistol-whipped, has been torn down. The bar from which he was lured to his murder is gone.
But 11 years after Mr. Shepard’s death in Laramie, Wyo., his mother, Judy, will be in Lincoln Center to answer questions from people in 100 theatres around the globe, including the Vineyard Playhouse, after they have simultaneously witnessed the performance of a sort of living memorial, The Laramie Project.
“It’s theatrical history,” says playhouse artistic director M.J. Bruder Munafo of Monday night, when the 8 p.m. staged reading in Vineyard Haven will coincide with premieres worldwide of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, also called the Epilogue.
Each theatre will begin with a live simulcast from New York, where the Epilogue will be introduced by Mrs. Shepard, the actress Glenn Close, and the project’s driving force, MoisÃ©s Kaufman. Each theatre will continue with a live performance of the Epilogue. Then, all the theatres will hook up again with New York, for discussion and debate, with questions coming to Mrs. Shepard and the creators via the Internet.
The Laramie Project began when, a month after Mr. Shephard’s 1998 murder sparked worldwide shock and discussion about homophobia and hate crimes, members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to interview the people of the town. From those interviews they wrote The Laramie Project, which became one of the most performed plays in America and was made into a film for HBO.
Then last year the Tectonic writers returned for more interviews, to explore what had been the impact, a decade later, of Mr. Shepard’s murder on the people of this small town. They spoke to some past participants and to some for the first time, including Mrs.Shepard and, with her agreement, the two roofers now serving consecutive life sentences for her son’s murder, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
“It’s a tragic story,” says Vineyard actor Scott Barrow, who will direct the Laramie Epilogue at the playhouse, and who for the past eight weeks has been part of the team workshopping the script with the Tectonic writers in New York. “Yet there’s such a feeling of hope. It’s about a community that comes together and how they make their way through an incredibly difficult situation.
“It really is Anytown, USA. It is Oak Bluffs, it is Tisbury . . . everybody believes this doesn’t happen in our town.”
Ms. Munafo directed a full production of the original Laramie Project here in 2003 — and she will stage it again for one night only on Sunday, with some members of the original cast.
Scott Barrow was one of them. He says acting in that Laramie production had such an impact on him that he left the playhouse with the intention of hunting down work with Tectonic Theater Project. He did. He has collaborated with Tectonic on such plays as the Tony-nominated 33 Variations, which starred Jane Fonda and Colin Hanks (son of Tom) on Broadway.
On Tuesday, Mr. Barrow spoke to the Gazette from New York where he had just emerged from reading in the final Tectonic run-through of the Epilogue script. He and the rest of the ensemble tested six different endings. They put the intermission back in (“That hadn’t been in there since August,” said Mr. Barrow). That afternoon, the final script would be sent to all the 100 theatres.
“It’s been frenetic and exciting,” he said. “There’s an amazing integrity to the process.” With thousands of hours of interviews to cut and rearrange — the entire script is verbatim — condensed to two hours, the writers are vigilant about not changing meaning by using quotes out of context. The play takes pains to present many points of view, asking more questions than it answers.
“All the work Tectonic does, you are left with something, as you leave the theatre, that is so different than say, a Neil Simon play,” said Mr. Barrow. “We’ve been working on this for so long — the piece is ready.”
His 14 Vineyard cast members will have a more immediate and intense preparation. Some — like Paul Munafo and Don Lyons — will play the same characters in both The Laramie Project and the Epilogue. They have read drafts of the Epilogue before this week, when they received the final lines. Mr. Barrow arrives to rehearse them on Saturday.
He is lucky to get the weekend here; he also is in rehearsals for an off-Broadway show, Embraceable Me, with Keira Naughton, that opens later this month.
“I’ve been in 50 or 60 shows, and I’ve never, ever had a producer say, ‘Yeah, you can take three days off in the middle of rehearsals,’ ” he said. “But they get it. It’s a big deal what we are doing this weekend.”
But will the story of a gay-bashing in Wyoming be relevant to Vineyard audiences? “You know, Massachusetts has the best hate crime legislation in the country; Wyoming has the worst, which is to say, none.
“So [here] we may be left with, that is not something that is everywhere . . . but there is deep-seated racism, or homophobia. This really is still a problem. [The late] Sen. [Edward] Kennedy put forward hate crime legislation at the federal level in 2002, and it got shot down; he brought it back the next year and it got shot down — because of sexual preference and gender identification,” said Mr. Barrow.
Really, though, The Laramie Project Epilogue is a story of community growth and healing, of what has and has not been overcome in 10 years. “Some people believe it was not a hate crime, just a robbery gone awry,” says Ms. Munafo, who calls the killers’ interviews “chilling.”
Mr. Barrow says the Epilogue “explores the nature of rumor, how stories get rewritten over time, and how a community protects itself by doing that.”
Each of the two plays stand on its own. “The messages and the play are intact, and both casts are fantastic,” says Mr. Barrow. “But part of the fun is to revisit the characters 10 years later.”
He calls The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later “such a poignant, poignant piece. To see these two pieces side by side, to see these people in the first piece who were standoffish and brutal and had never had any contact with the gay community now talking about drag queens . . . to see how their lives have changed, how it’s been chronicled. And then there are people who are very disheartened by the lack of change,” he adds.
The synchronized premieres take a cue from the Depression-era New Deal theatre program that used arts to foster debate about shared humanity even in politically-charged environments; in the 1930s, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here was part of a similar experimental debut.
“This sort of theatrical story isn’t really told elsewhere,” Mr. Barrow says. “It’s amazing.”
The original Laramie Project will be performed Sunday night, and Ten Years Later: The Epilogue will be performed Monday. Both shows begin at 8 p.m. For details and reservations, call 508-696-6300 or visit vineyardplayhouse.org.