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A Laramie Project

In my junior year at Idaho State, the university LGBT club worked with the Old Town Actor’s Studio of Pocatello to put on a winter performance of The Laramie Project. Twenty-eight actors played sixty-three characters, and I was fortunate enough to play three of them. The play, by Moises Kaufman, is based on the real-life aftermath of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard (he was murdered because he was gay). It takes on the perspective of both the townspeople of Laramie as well as that of a troupe of actors, veterans of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project who were stunned by Matthew’s story and traveled to Wyoming to learn more. Before The Laramie Project was even a project, the actors from New York and Kaufman amassed over 200 interviews with the citizens of Laramie to showcase the waves created in the wake of Shepard’s death. Kaufman and other actors involved wanted to know more than what they were seeing on the news: they wanted to find meaning in the ruins of tragedy. From that, they found a story worth telling.

Finding My Way to Laramie

Coming out is never a one-time affair; it will become a part of you for the rest of your life. Every new person you meet, in every new city, you will be coming out. It’s easy to be reductive and assume someone’s sexuality or gender in a crowd. We’ve all done it. Yahtzee! I spotted a fellow Other at the grocery store today! This rings especially true if you are from a small town. It’s too simple, too easy to rely on stereotypes, that minimize the near daily challenges of a person living a life authentically true to themselves. It eschews the violence LGBT people face around the world. This is perfectly mirrored in the lines of Jonas Slonaker, one of the characters I was fortunate enough to play in The Laramie Project:

"Well, there’s this whole idea: You leave me alone, I leave you alone. […] And it’s even in some of the western literature, you know, live and let live. That is such crap. I tell my friends that--even my gay friends bring it up sometimes. I’m like, “That is crap, you know?” I mean, basically what it boils down to: If I don’t tell you I’m a fag, you won’t beat the crap out of me. I mean, what’s so great about that? That’s a great philosophy?"

What does change over time is not the fact that we have to repeatedly come out, or even the danger one faces, what changes is the dialog we present when doing so. Being freshly out of the closet can feel intemperate and complicated to navigate, whereas, after a few years of experience, it becomes easier to present oneself in a way that others will understand. We memorize terminology; we build a script whether we know it or not.

The story of Matthew Shepard is a story of configured activism at this point. I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, but rather an admission that the parts of his story most often referenced tend to dilute the story as a whole. It creates something more palatable and forms a bastion of paradigms to filter around like a mass lecture in an introductory course.

An Actor’s Family

As a true introvert myself, rehearsals, performing, and being engaging, was painful, but it’s something I will never regret being a part of or doing. I used to worry far more about how good my performance was. I don’t feel that way anymore. I just feel proud to have been a part of something more than myself. This play, this story, changed me for the better, and I will always be mindful to that fact and how it has shaped me.

Being a part of this play was a beautiful realization of literature, of writing, of performing and landing in a pool of awareness with real depth. It left me with a surreal sense of the words that reflect a life I had never felt before. I was not only picturing what I was reading, but by performing it I was reliving those scenes. Coming to understanding in that moment was astonishing. I remember the feeling of the lights blinding me enough to only see the outline of the crowd, seeing the other actors on the stage, and feeling a meta-world being created before my eyes. It was an experience I’ll never forget and one I hope to know again someday.

You can watch the full film version of the play on The Laramie Project Movie’s YouTube channel. You can also learn more about Matthew Shepard and the tireless work that his mother has done ever since his murder on the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s website.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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