In October 1998, a local hate crime sent shockwaves across the nation. The tragic murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, drew widespread attention and underscored the chronic menace confronting the LGBTQ+ community. His gruesome killing galvanized public consciousness and ignited a powerful movement, leading to landmark legislation to protect a marginalized population.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s passing, we have a rare opportunity to reflect on his legacy and the crucial role that art and advocacy have played in preserving his memory.
At the heart of the commemoration is THE LARAMIE PROJECT, a watershed theatrical achievement and a testament to Shepard’s abiding influence. It’s a compelling play grounded in research and personal interviews conducted with the residents of Laramie, where Shepard lived. LARAMIE is a memorial to a young man whose life was cut short by unspeakable violence. It’s a call to action for a more inclusive and compassionate world.
In this interview, we have the privilege of gleaning the invaluable insights of Greg Pierotti — University of Arizona Theatre professor, distinguished artist, and co-author of THE LARAMIE PROJECT, which he now directs at the university. The script evolved from his work with Moisés Kaufman and the renowned Tectonic Theater Project in New York City. The company is best known for developing new plays using “Moment Work,” a trademarked playwriting method that employs rigorous research and collaboration in a laboratory environment. The process is a significant piece of Pierotti’s work, which resides at the intersection of theater and anthropology.
The interview includes Ray Cuevas and Lily Wilson, two of Pierotti’s students and key cast members of the production at the School of Theatre, Film & Television.
My first question is for you, Greg, and it’s one I’m sure you’ve encountered more times than you care to remember. Take us back to the day you heard the news of Matthew Shepard’s murder and what led to the play’s eventual production.
I don’t remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, but I was part of the gay community in New York at the time, and it was the only news — so within a couple of days. (There’s a part of the play in Act Two that deals with the time period when Matthew is in the hospital, and the world is just hearing through these media updates about Matthew Shepard. And that’s how everybody in the company came to know.)
And you were with the Tectonic Theater Project, then?
Yes. We were already doing GROSS INDECENCY: THE THREE TRIALS OF Oscar Wilde. We’d been running that play for two years off-Broadway. We were about to close, and we’d been meeting regularly to figure out our next project because we’d had considerable success with GROSS INDECENCY. We couldn’t agree on what to do. Do we want to devise a play? Do we want to do an existing play? And then the news hit, and within three days of the news hitting, I was at this big political rally in New York.
What was that like?
We called it a political funeral for Matthew, and there was police violence. It was just this very intense moment for everybody. We met regularly to read things and discuss what we would do next. And this story was the story of the moment. The artistic director said, “You know, GROSS INDECENCY has been looking at history and how history is constructed through various lenses. Could we do something similar with a current event?” We went out and conducted a bunch of interviews, and then we brought the interviews back to New York and transcribed them all ourselves.
So that’s how the script started. What next?
Then, we did a two-week workshop, and we used a practice that we developed called “Moment Work.” It’s a theatrical devising technique to work with “non-theatrical source material,” including interviews, trial transcripts, etc. And we just took our interviews and ran it through this process. We invited a bunch of theatrical luminaries and other people to a reading, including Tony Kushner and other producers – great theater people were there.
We just read what we had come up with. And the room was just like, “You Have To Do This Play!” Until that moment, at the end of that workshop, we were seeing if there was something to be done. We weren’t sure. We were feeling our way forward. And then we did the reading. The response in the room was palpable. People were just blown away by the content. If you come to see this production, the play you’ll see won’t be the one we read at that reading. It changed tremendously over the next year. But that moment was the mandate where the community said, you have to make this show.
Have you directed the show before?
I’ve never directed this play before. We simultaneously developed the work – the text, the staging, and the design. That’s how I describe theatrical devising. So rather than taking a text that already exists and then casting it and designing a world around it, like a blueprint – the play is a blueprint for a world — you find the text, the staging, and the design elements simultaneously. So, in a weird way, we all, as a group, directed the show over the course of the year because we were developing the staging and design while developing the text of the play.
At the reading, did you have any sense of the kind of international reception it would have?
No, it was a great surprise to us. We were young and passionate people, and we worked hard. And we all believed by the time we opened at the Denver Center that we had created a very strong play, but none of us was prepared for the response.
Then you certainly weren’t prepared for the Emmy nomination.
That came a bit later because we translated the script into the HBO film, which we got the Emmy for. I love the film and the fact that we were nominated for an Emmy. But it’s the magic of this play. The way Matthew’s story gets expressed in this play, the power of his story, and the impact of his humanness on people who come through this stage event is what became a worldwide phenomenon.
Did you have to change the original names of the residents you interviewed?
No. Most people we interviewed were fine with being represented by their names. A couple of people asked us to please change their names. I think three. And then one person asked to be called Anonymous, and that’s what they’re called in the play: Anonymous. As we developed the play, you know, we try this, we try that, we see what sticks and you know, certain transcripts emerge as super compelling and other transcripts. They’re all compelling, but it wasn’t the play we were writing. So yeah, I’d say there are about 60 roles in the play. But we interviewed probably close to a hundred people.
And how long were you there?
So we were there for various lengths of time. Leigh Fondakowski and I traveled to Laramie seven times. Each of my trips was about two weeks. The span of about a year; so 14 weeks of a year. Steven Belber went seven times. Moisés Kaufman went five times. And then the rest of the company made between one and four trips each. We were there a long time.
So it’s 25 years later. How much has changed textually? How much have you done to update anything?
Very little. So we, as a company, have added scenes and pulled scenes out because we’re always tampering. But, in the last 15 years, we haven’t made many changes. It still feels very alive and germane without a lot of changes. I’ve made some changes to gender pronouns because of the makeup of the cast.
Ray Cuevas, what year are you in, and what role(s) are you playing?
I’m a senior. I play Philip Deo, Moises Kaufman, Jonas Slonaker, Bill McKinney, Rob DeBree, Dr. Cantway, Andrew Gomez, and Fred Phelps. I think that’s everybody.
What’s it like to discover that your director co-wrote the play and was one of the original actors?
It feels pretty comforting to know that there’s somebody in the room that was there in the beginning. It feels a lot deeper than the different plays I’ve ever done in the past, and it feels a lot more heartfelt with every single thing I’ve done. Even in our first reading, you can tell that the energy in the room is so serious. It is so meaningful, not only to him, but you can tell that it touched everything inside of us. It really made a big difference. He knows everything — every character, every part of the show, like the back of his hand.
Lily Wilson, tell me about your roles.
I play Reggie Flutty, the first police officer to arrive at the scene. I also play John Peacock, Matthew’s academic advisor at the University of Wyoming. And then Carrie Drake, who was a writer for the newspaper. Reggie is my main role, and it’s a dense role.
Going in, I just wanted to let myself read the audition monologues and figure out which one I was most drawn to. I didn’t want to know how much or how little they speak in the show. I don’t want to know anything like that. I literally just want to see what sticks out to me. And that monologue immediately hit me. It’s the monologue of her trial testimony about finding Matthew. And wow, I’m very justice-driven. That’s a huge part of my personality, and she is as well. That stuck out to me because she’s humble but authoritative and powerful in everything she says. And she has these really fun banter moments as well.
Greg, talk about the dynamic of directing an actor who plays the opposite gender in a play rooted in a naturalistic setting.
This is very much a Brechtian play. So, it’s not a realistic play. The event of the play is very much a group of actors who come on stage and say, “We met these people, and they were like this. Now, I’m going to put on this hat, and I’m going to be this person. And now I will wear this coat; I will be this person.” It’s more [about] distinguishing that character from the other characters is the goal.
Fair enough. Now, I’d like to return to the 25th anniversary of Matthew’s death. LARAMIE is a timely piece, given the strange echoes of hatred and anti-gay legislation returning to the surface. The resonance is quite eerie.
I pitched this play because it’s the 25th memorialization of Matt’s death. And between the time I pitched it and now, the onslaught of anti-trans legislation has come out across the world. It’s a political agenda because people don’t understand Trans. It’s a great way to stoke fear and anxiety in people. So you can see this kind of national approach to legislating that exists to stoke fear of “the other” and of somebody who’s different. Suddenly, I feel like this play is back on the map. It couldn’t be a better time to be doing this play.
What insights would you like the audience to walk away with?
RAY CUEVAS: For me personally, the last line that one of my characters says is Jonah Slonaker’s. And not to give any spoilers, but his last line says, “What’s come out of it? What’s come out of this that’s concrete or lasting?” And when things like this happen, the main thing that everybody likes to say is, “I will remember; remember, but don’t forget. Remember, but don’t forget.” But there’s always a certain thing in the middle that a lot of people don’t do. It’s “remember, take action, and don’t forget.” That’s such a big thing. How can we, as a whole, try to make our lives better for everybody else around us?
GREG: I’ll add to that. We had the honor of speaking with Dennis and Judy Shepard (Matthew’s parents) on a Zoom call recently, which was awesome. They’re coming [to Tucson for the commemoration].
LILY WILSON: Yes. It was very powerful just to hear them speak about their experience and what they’ve done since. One thing that Judy mentioned so much was that we’re the voting age now; there are a lot of people in college who have never voted. So, talking about how that is something we can do because it’s so spoken about all the time to vote on the federal level — which is great, and everyone should. But a lot of times, the show points out how important it is to get out and vote on the local and state level. Because that is where a lot of things happen, this community change will start on a local level.
More Information and tickets to 'The Laramie Project'
The above article, written by Robert Encila Celdran, was originally published in Broadway World.