By Miranda Beninger
Before Matthew Shepard’s murder, Laramie, Wyoming was known as a town with personality.
After, it was known as a town of crime and tragedy.
In October 1998, Shepard was beaten and left tied to a fence post by two of his classmates from the University of Wyoming. The 21-year-old student suffered alone for 18 hours until he was discovered by a passing motorcyclist. Shepard was targeted for one reason.
He was gay.
It seems fitting that on the five-year anniversary of Shepard’s murder, students at the Ryerson theatre school chose “The Laramie Project,” based on Shepard’s story, as their first performance of the year. For the past four weeks, theatre students have been work-ing 10 to 14 hour days to put it together.
There are 24 students acting, but they play a total of 69 roles in the three-hour show. In fact, there are more characters in this story than there are seats for audience members.
Jessica Singer, assistant director of the play, says the audience sits in boxes within the play to represent the seats of the jury in Shepard’s murder trial. This makes them feel more involved in the story.
“There is no main character,” said Singer. “It’s a montage of characters. Some students play up to five roles.”
Before the play begins, there is a full pre-show set at the Fireside Bar in Laramie, where Shepard was a frequent visitor. It includes a series of karaoke acts from Broadway tunes to Dixie Chicks.
The pre-show gets the audience acquainted with some of the characters, who are based on the citizens of Laramie.
The Tectonic Theatre Company in New York City conducted over 200 interviews with the citizens of Laramie and visited the community six seperate times. Moises Kaufman later developed a play and a movie based on the reactions of Laramie citizens to Shepard’s death. David Scott, a fourth-year acting student playing several roles, says the play raises awareness by tackling issues of intolerance and hate.
“A lot of people have heard the name Matthew Shepard, or they know the story. I think they want to know more,” he said. “There is truth in the dialogue and we can’t be distanced from it.”
This is a play about our own history. There are very few plays that deal with our history, and this is something everyone can remember happening,” he said.
Scott says there is one scene in the play that brings him to tears.
In the scene, Dr. Cantaway describes how he treated both Shepard and one of his murderers without knowing until after the incident. Soft keyboard music plays one note at a time as the doctor asks himself if this is how God feels.
The theatre school’s version of “The Laramie Project” uses details like television screens showing bicycle and motorcycle races, to create the bar-atmosphere at the beginning of the play. The imagery also serves to remind the audience of how Shepard’s beaten body was discovered by a biker traveling down a deserted road.
At the back of the set, a fence stands where Shepard was tied up and left to die. It is later described by characters in the play as a pilgrimage site.
The play is directed by Marianne McIsaac, a Genie and Gemini-nominated actress and director. She says she encouraged her students not to watch the movie version of the story before doing the play. She wanted to make sure they formed their own interpretation.
“When you are putting on the play, it’s a whole different medium,” she said. “You work with the audience.”
The Laramie Project runs Oct. 1 to 11 in the Ryerson Theatre School’s Abrams Studio at 44 Gerrard St. E. Tickets are $16 adults, $12 students (in advance, full price at the door) $12 seniors, $10 for groups of 8 or more. For more information or to reserve tickets call (416) 979-5118.