In the fall of 1998, a small rural American town was changed forever as the community faced the reality of a once-distant hatred hitting too close to their home of Laramie, Wyoming.
The people of Hillsdale County were introduced to the community of rural Wyoming as the “The Laramie Project,” a three-act play, visited Jonesville’s Sauk Theatre for a four-day showing. It was part of the Sauk’s “Second Series,” where the theatre produces contemporary plays that deal with heavier issues, compared to its other productions that are more universally known and family oriented.
“The Laramie Project” is oriented as a self-aware docudrama, a play about making the play. It is not just a loosely-based true story: the audience is told Shepard’s story by actors playing the people of Laramie. Actors talk directly to the audience, and the words of the script are the real words of the real people.
James M. Brandon, chairman and professor of theatre and dance at Hillsdale College and one of the nine actors in the play, said this particular element was exciting to him.
“I love when you take what real people have said and then reenact it on the stage,” Brandon said. “There is an honesty there that a playwright making up language can’t capture.”
The play begins by describing Laramie, a small town where everybody knew everyone, and everyone knew everybody’s business. It was a simple community that you’d only know about if you’d been there, but that all changed when the world found out about Matthew Shepard — a 21-year-old, gay, college student at the University of Wyoming. He was found beaten and tied to a buck fence, fighting for his life. Shepard was gay in a time well before it was socially acceptable, and he was murdered because of it. The media put Laramie on the map after Shepard’s death, and soon everyone knew the name of the small town and the man who was murdered.
Brandon said the approach to this play is advantageous because rather than just giving one perspective, “The Laramie Project” gives the audience the “whole mosaic.”
“It’s a challenging play, it’s the kind of play people don’t want to sit and watch,” Brandon said. “It’s awkward and not as pretty as a fictional play, and that is exactly the point.”
The characters of the play represent a range of real people in Shepard’s community, from those who were shocked that something like this would happen in their hometown, those who were not surprised at all, those who were also gay and feared for their own lives, and those who had no qualms with the murder of the young man because of his sexuality.
The play was like newscasts used to be: the facts were presented, each side was represented, and the audience was left to make the decision for themselves. The audience is invited to assume the role of the playmakers, interviewing the townspeople to find the truth of the story.
“So many things in this play will resonate forever,” Michele Harmon, the stage manager said, “It is our responsibility to tell it correctly.”
The Sauk’s production of “The Laramie Project” was simply profound. Nine actors played some 67 characters, each narrating at one point or another. The actors never left the stage and were always visible to the audience, even when they weren’t in the scene. Most scenes only consisted of two characters at center stage, fixed around two wooden chairs to identify their intentional presence in that moment. Each actor was dressed in black with minimal props — just enough to differentiate between characters. The wooden buck fence was fittingly the focal point of the stage, as it was central to the plot. This simplicity, from the stage direction to the props, allowed the story to speak for itself.
When the actors were not in the scene, they sat in chairs that framed the focal point of the stage as they prepared for their next role. While still visibly present, there was a clear indication that they were not a part of the scene when they sat around the perimeter. It was distracting at times to notice the actors who were not involved in the scene as they were preparing for the next character they’d be playing, but it also added to the simplicity of the production.
Trinity Bird, the executive producer of “The Laramie Project” at the Sauk Theatre said they considered producing many plays, but this one was special.
“We didn’t do the play to try to preach a message,” Bird said. “But it’s all about love and hope. We aren’t that different, we may have completely different beliefs, but we’re still the same. I hope that’s what people took away from it.”