IN October of 1998, a harrowing hate-crime shook the windswept prairie town of Laramie.
An openly gay student at Wyoming University was beaten, tortured and tied to a fence, his face left bloodied and bruised. The only clear marks were where tears had washed his wounded face.
Such was the brutality of the attack that when a cyclist rode past 18 hours later, he initially mistook the 21-year-old victim for a scarecrow.
Matthew Shepard died in hospital six days later.
Shortly afterwards, members of Tectonic Theatre Project descended on Laramie, determined to pry into the town’s every nook and cranny. Conducting more than 400 interviews with over 100 of the town’s residents, the team pieced together the plethora of opinions and reactions that erupted after Matthew’s tragic death – their investigative work culminating in a gripping, emotionally charged play called The Laramie Project.
One decade later, curious to see how the town and its residents had progressed, the team returned to Laramie, creating a follow-up production in The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.
Now, 20 years after Shepard’s death, former Moriah College student Carly Fisher, along with her co-director Rosie Niven, are bringing the documentary dramas to the Sydney stage.
Despite being a 20-year-old production, “The story and the issues it presents are just as relevant today,” says Fisher.
Last year, marrying her passion for travel and a deep appreciation for the performing arts, Fisher founded Theatre Travels, and The Laramie Projects are the company’s debut productions.
“I really wanted to start making my own theatre because I want to encourage discussion. I want art to be non-combative, non-confrontational, and a non-political way of raising an issue,” Fisher comments.
“When everything was happening with the [same-sex marriage] plebiscite – and I have a lot of friends and family members who are part of the LGBTIQ community, and they were really hurting – I thought, well, what can we do about it? I can put in my vote but that’s one vote, what more can I actually do?”
Although significant progress has been made with the legalisation of same-sex marriage across many American states and other nations, the spiralling rate of hate-fuelled crime suggests the fight is far from over.
“The FBI statistics for last year’s hate crimes in America came out [in early November] and hate crimes have gone up another 17 per cent,” laments Fisher.
In Laramie, wedged between two mountain ranges, it is almost as if the town’s barren landscape is a physical embodiment of the deep divisiveness that echoes through.
In one camp is the vast majority of the town’s residents – those who seek to bury the horrific hate-fuelled crime deep into the town’s chequered past.
“It’s still very much a hush-hush issue,” Fisher remarks. “They don’t want to be associated with it anymore, which is sad, because it is an important part of their history.”
Fisher and Niven’s recent trip to Laramie just a few months ago serves as a case in point.
Even at the local tourist centre – despite the co-directors pushing for answers – no information was provided about Matthew, the situation surrounding his untimely death, or his murderers – both of whom remain in prison.
“To find any mention of Matthew, we had to drive to Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne, which is 45 minutes from Laramie,” comments Fisher.
Then there are those situated on the other mountain – such as Matthew’s parents and many of his friends – who have integrated the tragic murder into their personal narrative, and sought to make meaningful change in the name of their loved one.
“His parents are really inspiring people, and I just read his mother’s book,” says Fisher. “Judy has been really instrumental in calling for legislative change.”
As with most efforts at societal reform, it has been a long and arduous journey to see any headway; the passing of hate crime legislation that Judy spent years advocating for was signed under the Obama administration in 2009.
While the link between Matthew’s murder and virulent homophobia seems abundantly clear, many have tried to deny the tragedy was a hate crime – a provocative issue explored in the second play.
“Some try to overlook the fact that it has anything to do with Matthew’s sexuality and they make it about a robbery or a drug deal that goes bad,” Fisher explains.
The dichotomy of opinions surrounding Matthew’s death can arguably be best encapsulated in one object – the fence to which Matthew was tied. Notably, it was taken down in the years between the two plays.
Traditionally, dismantling a fence is often used as a theatrical motif to symbolise bridging barriers, but in the case of Laramie, concealing the location where Matthew was murdered suggests the very opposite – a significant step in the wrong direction, rather than progress towards any peaceful resolution.
“The fact that the fence is gone is not because they were ready to move on, it’s because they didn’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s the opposite of the reason you would hope to bring a fence down,” says Fisher.
While many of us attempt to steer clear of texts we analysed extensively in high school, Fisher, who first studied The Laramie Project as a student at Moriah, has felt drawn to the play every year, ever since.
“It was one of my HSC texts, and I immediately fell in love with it,” she says. “I read the show pretty much every year, and have done so since.”
Fisher’s Moriah College education has had a lasting impact, in more ways than just this one.
Thirteen years of studying Hebrew has proven surprisingly useful for co-leading both plays.
“There is a vigil in one scene, and we decided to replicate the most influential or impactful vigils [that have occurred around America]. We watched vigils from all around [America] and [many included] Hebrew prayers. I thought we can’t leave it out. So I taught some Hebrew [to one of the actresses].”
Fisher adds, “This play goes back to what I was taught in school and through my family practices – [the productions are] about inclusion, diversity, acceptance, equality.”
In keeping with these strong social values, Theatre Travels has partnered with ACON in a bid to raise funds and awareness about their invaluable work, particularly in light of World AIDS Day this Saturday.
“ACON does a lot in the fight to end the contraction of HIV, and they do a lot to facilitate healthcare for people who have HIV, but they also just do a lot for people beyond that – about their wellbeing and taking care of people who identify as LGBTIQ or who have HIV, not just in the medical sense but in the emotional sense as well,” she remarks.
“Considering how much of the show is about being there for people when they really need it, this organisation is literally the embodiment of everything we are hoping that people will take away from the plays.”
The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later are on until December 8.