The Laramie Project opens with its narrator describing how, from 1998 to 1999, Tectonic Theater Project made repeated trips to Laramie, Wyoming to conduct interviews with people from the town. The narrator states that the play the audience is about to see is comprised of shortened and edited versions of those interviews and other primary source texts.
In the play’s opening, the narrator tells the audience that the play was created through interviews with real people. In doing so, the playwrights draw attention to the play’s construction and the fact that it is an artistic portrayal of actual people and a real story.
Next, Greg Pierotti, a member of the Tectonic Theater Project, says that his first interview in Laramie was with Detective Sergeant Hing. Greg then “transforms” into the Sergeant and talks about his three-generation family history in Laramie. He praises Laramie as a good place to live and talks about the town’s history as a major stop along the railroad. Rebecca Hilliker, the head of the theater department of the University of Wyoming, jumps in, talking about how Wyoming’s sparse population and sunshine allows for reflective space and the opportunity to be happy.
The playwrights highlight how, although they are portraying real people, their characters are artistic representations of those people, rather than objective or journalistic presentations of the people themselves. The playwrights accomplish this by showing how Greg Pierotti, one of the playwrights, “transforms” into Sergeant Hing, underlining the artifice of the theatrical form and discouraging total suspension of disbelief.
Eileen Engen, a rancher, then speaks up, talking about how important it is to care for the land in and around Laramie. Doc O’Connor, a limousine driver, talks about how he prefers Laramie to the East Coast because of the climate. Next, the narrator introduces Philip Dubois, the president of the University of Wyoming, who talks about how Laramie is much safer for his children than the bigger cities he had lived in previously. The narrator then introduces Laramie resident Zackie Salmon, who talks about how practically everyone in Laramie knows each other. Zackie loves how close knit the community is. Doc O’Connor talks about how the trains going through the town don’t bother him. April Silva, a university student, says that Laramie is at least better than her hometown.
The playwrights use this moment to show that Laramie is beloved by its residents. Characters compare Laramie favorably to coastal and urban places—places like New York City, where the play first was produced, and where people are generally thought of as more progressive than in the rural West. This opening shows the value of a community like Laramie, which does not exist in cosmopolitan spaces. The opening also challenges the preexisting negative portrait of Laramie that the audience may have seen in the media in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder.
Sergeant Hing then resumes his discussion of Laramie, calling Laramie a “good place to live” before saying that a lot of reporters came to Laramie after Matthew Shepard’s murder. One reporter (whose dialogue is spoken by another actor) had asked who found Matthew far out on the country road where he was killed, and when Sergeant Hing explained that lots of people like to run and bike out there, the reporter did not understand why. Sergeant Hing, who loves nature, felt the reporter was totally missing the point.
As Sergeant Hing recounts his conversation with the reporter, it becomes clear that Hing and other residents feel that the national media and community outsiders have fundamentally misunderstood Laramie. By putting this anecdote in the play’s first scene, the play seems to be acknowledging the media’s failures and positing itself as an attempt to do better than previous portrayals of Laramie.
The narrator then introduces Jedadiah Schultz, who discusses how his perception of Laramie changed after Matthew Shepard’s murder. Jedadiah says that, before the murder, he would have said Laramie was a beautiful town with a strong sense of community. But since the murder, Jedadiah thinks of Laramie as a town “defined by an accident, a crime,” and a “noun, a definition, a sign.”
As Jedadiah expresses his frustration that the town has become “a noun… a sign,” he seems to imply that language can obscure rather than illuminate. Through this quote, the playwrights acknowledge how, in representing the town in a verbal artistic work, they have to be especially careful not to misrepresent it.