In one sense, The Laramie Project is not the story of the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder—it’s the story of an East Coast theater company coming to a small town in Wyoming to make a piece of art about the town’s experiences in the wake of a hate crime. In making such a play, the playwrights grapple with questions about the ethics of representing real events (particularly violent ones that are far removed from the playwrights’ own experiences) and they struggle with how to be fair and balanced in their representation of the town while still holding Laramie residents morally accountable for homophobia and violence. In order to address their ethical concerns, the playwrights include themselves in the play. They openly address their uncertainties and anxieties, and they own up to the specificity of their perspective, acknowledging that The Laramie Project is just one of many accounts of Laramie, and it should be taken as the playwrights’ unique perspective rather than the literal truth.
The Laramie Project is constructed out of monologues from interviews that the playwrights did with the residents of Laramie, as well as dialogue between the playwrights and the people in the town. As a result, the playwrights become characters themselves, drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that this is a play that was created by people, rather than a reconstruction of objective facts. It’s notable, too, that the playwrights include dialogue that establishes their status as outsiders to Laramie, which reminds the audience of the specificity of the playwrights’ perspectives. In being transparent about their experience of the community, the playwrights deliberately undercut their own authority in telling the town’s story so that they can engage with complicated moral issues without falsely claiming that their opinions are definitive. This is a pointed contrast to the media reports on Matthew Shepard’s murder, which were written by outsiders and presented as unbiased truth.
The playwrights also include dialogue that expresses the anxieties that the people of Laramie have about being represented onstage. Several characters worry the writers will misrepresent Laramie by depicting complex reactions to a communal trauma without empathy, and thus make Laramie out to be a more negative place than what it actually is. Some, like the Baptist Minister, even try to avoid talking with members of the theater troupe, only agreeing to do so anonymously out of fear of being cast in a negative light. Other characters worry that the theater company’s goals might backfire and encourage hatred, rather than promoting tolerance. Specifically, Father Roger Schmit is concerned that by representing anti-gay violence in the play, including homophobic slurs, the playwrights could actually encourage the same kind of violence that they are trying to understand and eradicate. By seriously engaging the townspeople’s anxieties, the playwrights shine a critical light on their own project, inviting the audience to consider what harm and distortion theatrical projects can create.
The townspeople’s concerns about the effects of The Laramie Project also speak to the profound power of art to influence people’s opinions and to change their beliefs. The playwrights acknowledge the potency of theater to shape people’s viewpoints, in part through their inclusion of descriptions of the play Angels in America, which is being performed by university students in town after Matthew’s murder. Jedidiah Schultz describes how the play, which prominently features gay characters struggling through the AIDS crisis, forced him to confront his own biases and gave him a framework for helping his parents, who at first refused to see the play, to work through theirs. By including descriptions of the effect of Angels in America on the Laramie community, The Laramie Project seems to be drawing attention to the powerful role of theater in tackling social issues like homophobia, and thus its potential for influencing how people see the world, be it positively or negatively.
Through exposing the play’s process and allowing themselves to become subjects of the play alongside the townspeople, the playwrights dismantle the hierarchical relationship between themselves and the citizens of Laramie. Instead, they portray the process of making the play as a mutually beneficial learning process. In turn, the audience does not see the playwrights’ account and judgment of what happened in Laramie as definitive; instead, the audience is encouraged to come to their own conclusions about the nature of violence, acceptance, and social change.
Theater and Representation ThemeTracker
Theater and Representation Quotes in The Laramie Project
And I’m thinking, Lady, you’re just missing the point. You know, all you got to do is turn around, see the mountains, smell the air, listen to the birds, just take in what’s around you. And they were just—nothing but the story. I didn’t feel judged, I felt that they were stupid. They’re, they’re missing the point—they’re just missing the whole point.
Now, after Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime. We’ve become Waco, we’ve become Jasper. We’re a noun, a definition, a sign. We may be able to get rid of that…but it will sure take awhile.
You know, it’s so unreal to me that, yeah, that a group from New York would be writing a play about Laramie. And then I was picturing like you’re gonna be in a play about my town. You’re gonna be onstage in New York and you’re gonna be acting like you’re us. That’s so weird.
They were both my patients and they were two kids. I took care of both of them…of both their bodies. And… for a brief moment I wondered if this is how God feels when he looks down at us. How we are all his kids…Our bodies…Our souls…And I felt a great deal of compassion…for both of them…
You think violence is what they did to Matthew—they did do violence to Matthew—but, you know, every time that you are called a fag, or you are called a…dyke…Do you realize that is violence? That is the seed of violence. And I would resent it immensely if you use anything I said…to somehow cultivate that kind of violence…Just deal with what is true. You know what is true. You need to do your best to say it correct.
I think right now our most important teachers must be Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. They have to be our teachers. How did you learn? What did we as a society do to teach you that? See, I don’t know if many people will let them be their teacher. I think it would be wonderful if the judge said, “In addition to your sentence, you must tell your story.”