Fifteen years ago this fall, one of the most infamous hate crimes in the nation’s history captured attention and headlines around the country and the globe. The murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student from Laramie, Wyo., started a national conversation.
The Laramie Project is the result of those who dove into that conversation, capturing snapshots of the perspectives, opinions and beliefs of the people from Shepard’s hometown and morphing them into a docu-drama play.
Theater-goers from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and broader communities get a unique opportunity this week to not only see a local staging of the play but to also take part in a series of post-show talkbacks during its run Wednesday through Sunday at UW Oshkosh’s Frederic March Theatre.
“This is a show I have wanted to direct for a number of years,” said director and UW Oshkosh Theatre Prof. Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft. “I tend to be drawn to plays that have an issue being dealt with and those based on truth or real-life people or facts. I’ve always thought this is a very theatrical piece and a very important piece…. I went back to it again and realized this year was the 15th anniversary (of Shepard’s death).”
The Laramie Project was created by the New York-based Tectonic Theatre Project. The company’s artists made multiple trips to Laramie to speak to the residents of the community about Shepard’s death shortly after it occurred. The resultant play is based on Tectonic Theatre Project members’ interviews, journal entries and reviewing of public documents.
“(Tectonic) decided that it matched their mission because they felt that theatre should engage people and be a place to struggle with questions that people might be discussing,” Purse-Wiedenhoeft said.
In connection to the incidents involved in Shepard’s death, the play discusses the death penalty and religion among other weighty topics. But Purse-Wiedenhoeft said the portrayal of Laramie’s people also leaves room for moments of humor and revealing humanity.
“There’s a lot included in there, and it’s a lot about civility, acceptance and just struggling with your own opinions about things,” she said.
The UW Oshkosh production is also welcoming Kelli Simpkins, one of the original actors in the Denver and Broadway casts. Simpkins was also involved in one of the many trips to interview Laramie’s people. She will be hosting the talkback Thursday evening and will remain on campus later this week, providing a workshop for UW Oshkosh students.
“We’re doing talkbacks after every performance,” Purse-Wiedenhoeft said. “People — even if they come only one night after the show — can come the night (Kelli) is here; we’ll open it up to the public.”
She said the show is purposely written and performed so that “it’s not just one viewpoint.”
“They interviewed people will all opinions,” Purse-Wiedenhoeft said. “It’s one of those shows that will make people want to talk afterwards. And it’s not just serious. There’s still humor in it. The characters are based on these real people. So anything goes.”
Tickets are available for each show, which runs Wednesday, Nov. 20 through Sunday, Nov. 24, with evening shows at 7:30 p.m. and a matinee on Nov. 24 at 2 p.m.
- For more information about the production, to order tickets and to learn more about this and other UW Oshkosh 2013-14 Theatre season shows, visit the Theatre department website or call (920) 424-4417.