In November 1998, a theater group from New York arrived in Laramie, a town reeling after a brutal murder.
The Tectonic Theater Project eventually would create “The Laramie Project,” which examined how Wyoming reacted to the killing of Matthew Shepard. The play would go on to be performed at schools and theaters around the world.
But the group had no plans of writing a play when they visited Wyoming to talk with community members after Shepard’s death, said Leigh Fondakowski, head writer of “The Laramie Project.” The gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student died Oct. 12, 1998, after two men beat him and left him tied to a fence outside Laramie. The murder caught the attention of people around the world.
“What was happening with Matthew was the first anti-gay hate crime in American history that people took such notice of,” she said. “People are murdered every single day, all the time, every year. But nobody ever stood up and said this is wrong. So it was this watershed moment in American history.”
So writers and actors arrived with a question: “Do we as theater artists have a role to play in this incredible conversation that’s happening?”
The company visited the town through the year after Shepard’s death and wrote “The Laramie Project” from more than 200 interviews. They thought they’d perform it and that would be the end of it. Instead, the play continues to be performed around the country.
“It was a complete shock that others started to do ‘The Laramie Project,’” Fondakowski said. “And it’s been a complete shock that it’s had such a lasting impact and that it continues to have such an impact.”
“The Laramie Project” is arguably the most recognizable work inspired by Shepard’s death. But it’s only one of many. Shepard’s death has sparked two decades of art — from music to plays and poetry to film.
“Art ... goes way beyond ideology and goes into what is real, and what is transcendent and what is beautiful and what is meaningful and what is resonant as human beings,” Fondakowski said.
Facets of expression
Artists have used theater, paintings, sculpture, film, books, poetry, music and even teddy bears to examine Shepard’s story.
“The Laramie Project” tells a story of the community through its own words. The theater team returned a decade later for a short epilogue, but wrote a second full-length play, “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.”
Another work exploring the community response is the film “Laramie Inside Out,” by Beverly Seckinger, which she created shortly after the murder in her hometown. As an out professor from Laramie who supports and mentors LGBTQ students at the University of Arizona, she felt she had a role to play.
There was also a “ride to the rescue” feeling, she said, to defend her oft-vilified community and university and explore the heart of Laramie herself. “I had to go see for myself,” as she says in the film.
“It’s really about how this event affected all these other people and the town as a whole,” Seckinger said. “So I guess I felt the need to work this out, make sense of it and ultimately say something as a person from Laramie.”
While Seckinger set out to tell Laramie’s side of the story, Michele Josue wanted the world to see who Shepard, her friend, really was as a person. The result was the Emmy-winning film “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.”
She and Shepard had become friends in theater at the Swiss boarding school they attended while his parents lived in Saudi Arabia. She was devastated by his death and rarely talked about him until she started working on the film more than a decade later.
“I feel like in the immediate aftermath of his death and several years after he was elevated to being this very iconic public figure, almost mythical in a way, who was without flaws or any dimension really,” she said. “And I, having known him and loved him as a close friend, felt that it was this tragedy that the world was missing out on his humanity, that they weren’t able to see that he was so much than a victim, so much more than what happened to him.”
Another work that focuses on Shepard as a person is “Considering Matthew Shepard,” a concert-length, three-part fusion oratorio that Craig Hella Johnson wrote for his Grammy-winning choral group, Conspirare.
The piece incorporates works of poetry and Shepard’s journals, which audiences can read in his own handwriting on a screen above. The group performed the 2016 composition as part of the Matthew Shepard Memorial Group’s 20th anniversary events at the University of Wyoming.
Shepard’s story has inspired several films, including the TV movie “The Matthew Shepard Story,” which garnered an Emmy for Stockard Channing’s performance as Judy Shepard.
A vast number of songs have been written about or dedicated to Shepard, including Elton John’s “American Triangle,” Melissa Etheridge’s “Scarecrow,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Above the Clouds” and “Jesus is on the Wire” written by Thea Hopkins and recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary.
Among the earliest was Randi Driscoll‘s “What Matters,” which she penned just days after seeing a photo of Shepard’s parents at his funeral.
“I was hurt and sad and just outraged, just being a citizen,” she said. “That is what it was, I was saddened by the story and I was compelled to sort of write something as my own way to cope with it. And truth be told, if I hadn’t performed it that evening, I might have never recorded it. Because it felt like a personal letter.”
Driscoll decided to give the Matthew Shepard Foundation 100 percent of the song’s proceeds and later wrote a sequel amid the debate for marriage equality in California.
She isn’t surprised so many works of art have been inspired by Shepard’s death.
“I think that people have tapped into this story of wanting there to be a better tomorrow,” she said.
“The Laramie Project” remains the most well-known piece of art created in light of Shepard’s murder.
It has spanned beyond the Tectonic productions to performances by Hollywood stars and students around the world.
“And I have asked myself why, particularly in light of this anniversary...,” Fondakowski said. “Because it’s ordinary people talking, they can relate to it somehow. It’s accessible to them to portray ordinary people. But more than that, they have a sense of responsibility. They take the play and they’re like, ‘Where there is hate, we’re going to address it. Where there is discrimination, we’re going to talk about it,’ ... which is amazing, that art can have that kind of impact for young people.”
“The Laramie Project” HBO TV movie starred Peter Fonda, Christina Ricci and Steve Buscemi. Participants at last month’s “Laramie: A Legacy” benefit reading in New York included Anderson Cooper, Samira Wiley, Mary Louise Parker, Asia Kate Dillon and Olympic skater Adam Rippon.
“It was incredibly powerful,” Rippon told the Star-Tribune. “To learn about the story was one thing, but to really perform and be a character in the story, I felt like I was a part of it. During “The Laramie (Project)” performance, Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, read his statement in court. And it was a pretty powerful moment. It was probably something I’ll never forget, especially within the dress rehearsal, when it was the first time I heard him speak. Everything that they’ve been through, that they’ve revisited this tragedy every year but they’ve also taken it and tried to make such good out of something so evil and so horrible has been absolutely incredible.”
The Matthew Shepard Foundation has worked with Tectonic to create educational and discussion materials and organize talks with performing groups and audiences. One such group was Natrona County High School.
“They aren’t just a couple hours of theater entertainment, but some meaningful conversation in the community results from a performance,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the foundation, “whether that be in person or in the media or one person to another person at a time. We’d like to see conversations happen about, ‘What does the play tell us about our community?’”
“The Laramie Project” is the most difficult play Natrona County High School teacher Zach Schneider has ever been part of, he said. He and Shepard grew up together.
His involvement with “The Laramie Project” goes back to the beginning, when he wrote about the play’s 2000 premiere in Denver for the Star-Tribune. In 2006, he performed in Casper’s first production of the play at Stage III Community Theater, where Shepard also had acted in plays.
Schneider directed “The Laramie Project at Natrona County High while completing his master’s thesis about the play.
“Having lived through that experience, having it be a friend of yours that it happened to and then recreating that as art was — it was a difficult experience,” he said. “But it was important.”
When Stage III produced the play, many season ticket holders skipped that show or didn’t renew, he said. Some believed the play made Wyoming look bad, but Schneider calls it a love letter to Laramie.
“The theme of it is that this could be anybody’s town in any time period,” he said. “And ‘The Laramie Project,’ I think it’s why it resonates with so many school theaters, is that it examines, ‘Do we have the same issues that can happen in our town?’”
Schneider credits the response to Shepard’s murder and the TV show “Will & Grace” as two reasons that progress for the LGBTQ community has come so far.
“I think it’s because of that art,” he said. “And that’s what I teach my students, is that art is a way you can change the world.”
Meaning through art
Shepard’s death has a lasting effect on Elton John, one of the most famous gay musicians in history.
At a recent concert in Casper, John mentioned that he had received a copy of the Star-Tribune opinion page in which Marsden, then a Star-Tribune reporter, wrote a column in Shepard’s honor. John sent a signed copy of the page to Shepard’s parents with the words, “This must never happen again.” John has said he has a photo of Shepard in his kitchen to which he says hello each morning.
He befriended the family and championed their foundation, for which he performed several benefit concerts. The more than $1 million he’s contributed were vital to the foundation becoming financially stable and expanding to a national level, Marsden said.
“I was deeply impacted by what happened to Matthew Shepard,” John said Thursday in a statement to the Star-Tribune. “I wanted to do something to channel my outrage and be part of the healing process, so I went to Laramie to meet people and grieve firsthand. I also gave a concert at Matthew’s school to raise money for anti-hate groups, which was something small I could do to help keep heartbreaking tragedies like this from ever happening again. The song I wrote, American Triangle, was my way of expressing how I felt and honoring Matthew’s legacy. I hope those who hear it will feel a little closer to him.”
Josue, the “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine” director, said she’s always struck by the artistic response to her friend’s story.
“It’s a way for us as human beings to really process some of these really traumatic or challenging, complicated things that occur in our life — you know, grief, death, anger and outrage,” she said. “These are all very powerful, big emotions. And what I learned making the film is that you do have a choice: You can use that and have it fuel you, and you can transform those emotions and use it for something good, to try to inspire people to make more compassionate choices.”
That change, she said, through empathy.
“(It’s) that connection that really changes hearts and minds and really humanizes a really complicated issue this issue of discrimination and hate,” Josue said. “It’s very abstract to people, but when you can really connect on a personal level, it really starts hitting home and making sense.”
Fondakowski, co-writer of “The Laramie Project,” said students think she’s kidding when she says “our job in this world is to eradicate homophobia from the planet.”
“I think the artist does that not by creating necessarily political theater, or didactic theater — theater that takes sides or that makes a political statement — but theater that moves people to think about their lives differently and recognize our common experience as humans, our commonalities as opposed to our differences,” she said.
Lesléa Newman arrived in Laramie the day Shepard died. Shepard had been part of the planning committee that brought her there as keynote speaker for UW’s Gay Awareness Week.
At the discussion of her children’s book, “Heather Has Two Mommies,” a seat sat empty in the front row. Newman doesn’t know if that was intentional, she said, but she kept thinking, “That’s Matt’s seat. He would have been sitting there.”
Her book “October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard” collects 68 poems she began writing after watching a performance of “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later” in 2009. Eight of the poems are included in “Considering Matthew Shepard.” Composer Curtis Heard set the entire book to an opera.
“For me, I try to repair the world by creating art that will hopefully inspire people to make the world a better place,” Newman said. “And I feel because I am a successful writer and I have been given an voice — and with that success and voice comes obligation and responsibility — that for me to give voice to the voiceless, for those who can no longer speak for themselves, is very important.”
A way forward
Few physical memorials to Shepard exist because of fear of possible vandalism, said Marsden, the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s executive director. The few that do exist in Wyoming do not depict Shepard himself. There’s nothing more the family can do for Shepard himself, Marsden said, so the foundation hopes that memorials focus on preventing a similar tragedy.
Casper sculptor Chris Navarro’s “Ring of Peace,“ which depicts a bell surrounded by doves, was installed in 1999 on Second Street in downtown Casper. The piece is dedicated to Shepard, the victims of Columbine and all other victims of violence, Marsden said. Navarro creates miniature replicas with functioning bells for the foundation’s yearly gala.
A new mural in downtown Laramie, “Wild West Social Justice” by Laramie artist Adrienne Vetter includes three of the “Angel Action” activists among other figures from Wyoming’s civil rights history including the Black 14 and suffragettes. The activists wore homemade wings to obscure protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church during the trial of one of Shepard’s murderers. The tactic has since been used after other tragedies, such as the Pulse nightclub shootings.
Black and white figures related to Wyoming’s social justice and civil rights history are painted in juxtaposition with sepia-toned figures from the Wild West era.
The portraits look the viewers straight in the eye, an intentional artistic decision.
“I still think that some of these moments of history are moments that we haven’t fully confronted or faced,” Vetter said. “... The murder of Matthew Shepard is still an event that I think that we as Wyomingites and anybody who lives in Laramie still grapple with. It’s been made part of our identity in a really broad way.
“People as far away as Japan know the Matthew Shepard story, and so it’s something that I think we are constantly always going to be wondering: Have we faced that part of our history and our Wyoming identity, or have we not?”
Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner