In a bar, in a town, in America, in the nineties, two men approached another. Their names were Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the other’s was Matthew Shepard. He was gay, they were not. After these two men tied Matthew Shepard to a fence and beat him to death with the butt of a gun, one could be forgiven for thinking that’s all there was to know. The media rolled in, the felons were convicted, order was restored to the galaxy. This is a story we’ve become strangely used to hearing, now even more so than in the nineties, when cable news was only coming into its own and social media scarcely existed. But the truth resists simplification, and Laramie is no simple town.
The town where this took place was, by all accounts, not that sort of town. Laramie was a small university town, in the nation’s most sparsely populated state, far away from the “urban” neighbourhoods of Detroit and Baltimore. The town of Laramie was “Middle America” in every sense of the phrase. Even the nature of the crime itself seemed out of place. Gay rights and homophobia hadn’t received real media attention since the start of the AIDS outbreak in the ‘80s. This story was a perfect storm for the 24 hour news cycle. A good old fashioned “won’t somebody please think of the children?!” type story, destined to cause a frenzy and then die out in due time. And that’s where Tectonic Theatre Project came in.
Seven company members from the theatre company, many of them gay, travelled from New York to Laramie and conducted hundreds of interviews with the townspeople. These interviews were transcribed, edited, arranged and edited again to form the piece of theatre that we will be performing in April. The resulting play is roughly 100 minutes long (plus an interval), and in that time covers themes of justice, fear, social responsibility and the media; all from the perspective of good old-fashioned, plain speakin’, tax payin’ common folk like you and me. This all for the purpose of telling a story that would not be forgotten, would not be simplified and would not be dismissed as irrelevant to our times.
We care about The Laramie Project, partly because we were given a sizeable grant to care about it. But we also care because it has a huge resonance with the world around us. We are in the midst of a cultural shift in how we view homosexuality in our society, but with every change comes resistance, and looking inward will always be more difficult than looking outward. And that’s why this play is important to us: lest we as a society think that this story, written only 16 years ago, is no longer relevant to us.
All of this is of course to say, that really, we care about this play because most of us can’t vote. For every one of us, the idea of a no vote winning out in this referendum is in equal parts incomprehensible and terrifying. The idea of us not being able to do anything about it is equally upsetting. This is where you come in. If we do our jobs right, this play won’t just make you laugh or cry, or give your business to non-homophobic printing companies, it will also make you care. Not just enough to go out and vote, which you should be doing already you Lazy Larry, but to realise just how far we have yet to come. To stop seeing this as a gay people issue and start seeing it as a national issue. To realise that an individual, or in this case two individuals, can have an immense power over the identity of their community, for better or for worse.
This play has taught me that our actions and identity are inextricably linked with those of our home. Let’s not make that a bad thing, yeah?
– Andy McLoughlin