When the Tectonic Theater Project debuted The Laramie Project 10 years ago, it was an instant critical and commercial hit. Based on interviews the theater troupe conducted with residents of the town of Laramie, Wyoming, the play used residents’ reactions to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student in the town, to show how people engage with questions of tolerance and bigotry, forgiveness and murder. It became a touchstone for both hate-crime legislation and anti-homosexual demonstrations—along with one of the most-produced plays in America.
Ten years after Tectonic first went to Laramie, members of the troupe went back to re-interview residents, to see what, if anything, had changed. They also spoke for the first time with Shepard’s mother Judy and Aaron McKinney, one of Shepard’s murderers. They used these interviews to write an epilogue to The Laramie Project, which will have its world premiere on October 12—the 11th anniversary of Shepard’s death—at more than 100 theaters across all 50 states. The only place to see it in Nevada? Henderson’s Green Valley High School.
- From the Calendar
- The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later
- Free (donations collected for the Matthew Shepard Foundations).
- Green Valley High
- From the Sun Archives
- Las Vegas Academy theatre students raise awareness with Laramie Project (8/13/04)
- Anti-gay group protests Las Vegas Academy's Laramie Project (5/12/04)
“The Laramie Project was originally the advanced-study class project,” says Jennifer Hemme, performing arts teacher at Green Valley. “And then the epilogue thing kind of came along, and it was kind of a natural fit.”
Natural, maybe, but not without risk. Because it tends to cause controversy, the play is avoided by many schools. “I think it’s an important story to tell,” Hemme responds. “It’s not pro-homosexuality or anti-homosexuality; it’s anti-hate.”
It’s also a teaching opportunity, allowing each of the 30-plus students in Hemme’s class multiple roles, engaging them all fully in the play. Because it’s based on real characters, considerable study is required to portray the characters without judgment.
As an educator, Hemme hopes also to confront issues young people face themselves, in a structured environment. For a past production of Bang, Bang, You’re Dead, which deals with bullying, suicide and, obliquely, the Columbine shootings, Hemme brought in school counselors and hosted discussion sessions. “Theater is a social voice,” Hemme says. “It has a right to have real opinions and not just be fluff all the time.”
Which is not to say Hemme doesn’t love her fluff, too. Green Valley High premiered the stage version of High School Musical 2 two years ago, and was in talks to premiere another family-friendly Broadway hit this year. When that musical wasn’t ready, however, the performing arts committee elected to produce Rent: School Edition. And that, coming after Laramie, has some of the school’s parents complaining.
“We’ve had about half-a-dozen parents voice concerns about Rent and The Laramie Project, feeling that the mature subject matter is not appropriate for high-school students,” says school principal Jeff Horn. “They’ve done that respectfully. And I respect their opinions. What I tell them ... is that what makes Green Valley a great school is parental support.”
Horn says he cleared the Rent production with his area supervisor before giving Hemme the go-ahead, and that signed permission slips—familiarizing parents with the subject matter—were required to audition for Laramie and Rent.
For her part, Hemme says she’s received supportive feedback from parents with children active in the theater department. “It takes compassion to understand where people are coming from, and it takes courage to speak up for what you believe,” Hemme says. “On both sides.”