Just two weeks after gay University of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard died from a savage beating in October 1998, 10 writers from the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project were on their way to Laramie to see how the town was dealing with the aftermath of the hate crime.
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For sure, the town was changing. The media had descended on the town of 27,204, and the trials of the two suspects - Russell A. Henderson and Aaron J. McKinney - would drag on for weeks.
"The people were upset at how they were being portrayed," said head writer Leigh Fondakowski. "They really wanted to tell us that the media had gotten it wrong, or was just creating this stereotype: that (Laramie) was a cowboy town and this is the way cowboys treat gay people. We were really interested in not looking for sound bites but letting people talk about what was on their minds."
Six trips and 200 interviews later, the group had the material that would turn into "The Laramie Project," now one of the most produced plays in regional, college and high school theater. The play isn't a biography of Shepard and the hate crime so much as it is about a town scrambling to deal with its own issues. "Laramie" was nominated for an Emmy when it was adapted for HBO.
The original play was three acts, but in Juneau, Fondakowski is developing an approved two-act version that the play's distributor can license. The new intermission comes right before the media descend on Laramie.
"The stories are very much about people and their humanity and their struggles," Fondakowski said. "It was a difficult project, because being gay myself there's a certain kinship with Matthew Shepard and his friends and a certain understanding that I have of how homophobia really operates in our society. Gay people live with a certain level of fear all the time that many people who don't walk in their shoes would never understand."
The play stars an ensemble cast of Juneau actors Ed Christian, Ryan Conarro, Roblin Gray Davis, Aaron Elmore, Doniece Gott and Katie Jensen; and Marinda Thea Anderson and Ericka Michelle Lee, from the cast of "Hair." The actors portray more than 70 characters - an emergency room doctor, a sheriff's deputy, a young bicycle rider, a Catholic priest, a Kansas preacher, a young Muslim student, and more - in a series of quick changes.
This is the first version that Fondakowski has been involved in without the original company members. She deliberately brought no tapes of past productions.
"I wanted to do this as an experiment to see what happened when we deal with the language of the play," Fondakowski said. "The actors were able to find that poetry of the people that I knew and that I met.
"One of the characters that I love the most is the detective, Rob DeBree. He has a line about homophobia and making gay jokes and never thinking twice about it, and then realizing that gay people do live in fear. They always have to be looking over their shoulder and sort of hyper-vigilant. This guy realized that no one has the right to feel that fear, and he lost a couple of his buddies for standing up for his beliefs."
Fondakowksi was in Juneau last summer and fall revising and rewriting parts of "The People's Temple," a reader's theater piece about the Jonestown Massacre. San Francisco's Z Space Studio commissioned that play after seeing "The Laramie Project."
Like "The People's Temple," this play unwinds as a reader's theater piece on a bare-bones stage. Many of the costumes are draped on coat hangers on a series of posts across the stage, or are hanging off the backs of chairs. Most of the character changes, from costume to costume, happen on stage.
This is head costume designer Holly Rihn's first production as the lone designer. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and the Perseverance costume intern this season, Rihn was a co-designer for Perseverance's production of "King Island Christmas" earlier this year.
She found most of her wardrobe in Juneau stores, people's closets and Perseverance racks. To facilitate the quick changes, she had to create a constant base, a first layer, for each actor.
"(The clothing) is late '90s with a little bit of Western flair to it," Rihn said. "People think, 'Well that's just simple.' But this is probably the most difficult show I've designed in the past couple of years, just because there are so many factors that contribute to how you choose the clothes.
"It's very interesting to see a photograph of the actual person that you're supposed to be portraying in the play and to translate that into clothing that fits the body and the personality of the actor portraying that characters."
Ten writers made the first trip to Laramie, after making phone calls and writing e-mails to establish contacts. Most of the writers were new to interviewing. The writers built a quick draft of the first two acts from that first set of interviews and made six trips overall. When they returned for the trial of Russell Henderson, the town's focus had changed from dealing with the shock of the hate crime to debating whether Russell Henderson deserved the death penalty.
"We saw how the people were changing," Fondakowski said. "They were sort of in the middle of processing this thing, and our approach was very different than the media's. We showed up at the moment they wanted to talk, and we earned their trust pretty quickly and became an outlet for their frustration. When we went back, we were bonding and we had gotten to know these people. They were opening up more."
The writers spoke with the perpetrators' families, most of whom were hesitant about having their words included in the play. Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, approached the writers after the play was mostly complete. Judy Shepard accompanied the writers to the Emmys and occasionally lectures when the play is performed in various cities.
"We really thought about making this a play about a town, and by virtue of doing that, it's bearing out to be true that small-town America is very identifiable," Fondakowski said. "The people in (Laramie) are interchangeable with the people in (Juneau), or any town in America."
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com.
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