Rollins College dives head first into The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later

Winter Park – It’s been 15 years since we lost Matthew Shepard. The 22-year old University of Wyoming student was kidnapped, beaten, tortured and tied to a fence post on Oct. 6, 1998. His death, six days later, became the gay hate crime that shook the country and ultimately led to federal hate crime legislation.

In the years since, there have been songs, books, films and documentaries written about Shepard. None stands out more than The Laramie Project, a play by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. It was born from hundreds of interviews with the townspeople of Laramie, Wyoming. The crime occurred just outside the prairie town.

Ten years after Shepard’s death, the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Laramie to follow-up with residents and talk to them about the lasting impact of his murder. Those interviews became a companion play, an epilogue, titled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

This provocative work opens the 2013-2014 season at the Annie Russell Theatre at Rollins College. It runs from Sept. 27-Oct. 5. Though written as a staged reading, Director Thomas Ouellette has envisioned Laramie as a fully staged play at the Annie.

“I picked this play because I thought this would be a watershed moment for the LGBT community,” said Ouellette, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal benefits to same-sex married couples. “I knew it would be poignant and pointed either way.”

An acting lesson
A casting call for Laramie coincided with the first week of school for Rollins. More than 60 students tried out for 13 places in the cast – five men, five women and three narrators. The actors portray 50-plus roles and had to demonstrate for Ouellette that they could seamlessly move from one persona to another.

“It’s a great acting lesson for students because it gives them the opportunity to put on the moccasins of some very different people who are all still alive and still breathing,” Ouellette said. “It allows them to play a range of characters – some hold views analogous to their own and some are diametrically opposed. Inhabiting both, and giving their words the same conviction, is a real challenge for students.”

One third of the 13-person cast is comprised of incoming freshman, who received notices about the tryouts at home before arriving on campus. The narrators are: Crysta Anne Marie, Peter Ruiz and Alexandra Crawford. The actors are: Chris Stewart, Kami Spaulding, Ryan McCormick, Isabella Ward, Casey Casteel, Emily Steward, Alexios Venieris, Samantha Frontera, Russell Henderson, Ryan Roberson, Aaron McKinney and Taylor Sorrel.

History retold
The Epilogue is told in two acts, each about 45 minutes in length. Shepard is not portrayed in the play, though his mother Judy Shepard, who became a high-profile LGBT activist after her son’s murder, has a role. In addition, we hear from one of Shepard’s murderers; one of two men who received life convictions for the crime.

The play asks and tries to answer a number of provocative questions: How did Laramie change as a result of Shepard’s murder? Has the impact been lasting? What does life in Laramie tell us about life in America ten years after the murder? And how is history being rewritten?

One of the things that recent interviews revealed is that for some in Laramie the story has morphed, from a murder rooted in senseless homophobia to a “drug robbery gone bad” – despite all evidence to the contrary?

“The premise for the Epilogue is that the same group of interviewers went back to Laramie to talk to people and see where the town was. It’s about all that has changed – and hasn’t changed – since this bellwether incident in 1998,” said Ouellette, who is a professor of Acting & Directing in the Department of Theatre & Dance at Rollins. “The play is a range of stories; the memories and reactions of people as they look back.”

One of the most surprising stories came from the convicted killer, who now claims he was Shepard’s lover and that his murder was the result of a drug robbery – despite the fact that Shepard was found beaten to death and tied to a fence.

This retelling has become so pervasive that award-winning journalist Stephen Jimenez went back to Laramie to look at court records, talk to people and compile research for a new book. The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard is set to be released Oct. 1, and Jimenez plans to write a screenplay.

“Some people in Laramie have gravitated towards that theory in a way that’s frustrating,” Ouellette said. “It’s almost as if they want to be able to say ‘This isn’t about me. This isn’t us. These were two drug-crazed people who were not us.'”

Changes at Rollins
The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later is not the first time Rollins has tackled the story of Shepard’s murder. The Laramie Project, the first play, had a dramatic reading at the Fred Stone Theatre in 2000. The experimental theater, home to the Rollins Players since 1922, features more avant garde second stage shows produced by students.

Laramie is the singular drama in the Annie Russell’s 81st season, which will include the Tony-winning musical-comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in November, the humorous A Clean House in February, the cabaret style Song & Dance in March and The Lost Comedies of William Shakespeare in April.

According to Ouellette, there would have been little support for a staging of either Laramie play at the Annie Russell Theatre a decade ago. Back then, the Annie was one of just a handful of theater options in town. Loyal, but conservative, season ticket holders in Winter Park had come to expect more traditional Broadway fare.

“The fact we couldn’t do it (Laramie) on the main stage isn’t our misconception of what the audience was up for,” Ouellette said. “Annie Russell was the theater of choice for people for years.”

In recent years Rollins has changed dramatically. The college now has an LGBT faculty organization and a student-led LGBT club on campus, both of which hold a number of annual events. An openly lesbian dean, Dr. Carol Bresnahan, currently serves as Provost. In 2013, the college held its second Lavender Graduation for LGBT students.

“If you had told me when I came here 20 years ago, I would not have believed that we would see this wake of change,” Ouellette said.

Winter Park and Orlando have seen a flood of new theater companies including Mad Cow Theatre, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, Orlando Repertory Theatre and Winter Park Theatre, with the community thirsting for more. All this comes at a good time for The Laramie Project.

“It will be interesting to see how the community – both the Rollins community and the community outside the college – responds to this play and the discussion we are creating with events surrounding its opening,” Ouellette said. “We are one generation past Matthew Shepard and many of the student in this play were just two or three when he was killed. We had several who didn’t know who Matthew Shepard was.”

In conjunction with The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, the school has hosted a cast discussion at the Winter Park Library and a visit by renowned LGBT activist Stuart Milk, whose uncle Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official, was gunned down by a fellow San Francisco supervisor in 1978.

An opening night reception on September 27 will feature Alan L. Bounville, an openly gay activist, who walked 6,000 miles to end gender and sexual orientation discrimination. Bounville will also speak at the college at 4 p.m. September 28.

“This is not about a bunch of theater artists working in a room with no windows – it goes way beyond that. For most theater people, it’s me, me, me,” Ouellette said. “This is theater for social change and it’s a way for students to use their craft to expose people to different worlds and make them think. It’s very empowering for them. It’s powerful.”

More info
What: The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later
Where: Annie Russell Theatre, Rollins College
When: Sept. 27-Oct. 5
Tickets: $20 ($10 for students) at or 407-646-2145

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