Night Writes sits down with co-directors Carly Fisher and Rosie Niven to discuss their upcoming productions of The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later with Theatre Travels.
What sparked your interest with this project, bringing these two shows together?
CF: I have loved The Laramie Project since I first read it about 8 years ago – it was the first time I was exposed to verbatim theatre as a form and to me this play represented everything that theatre can do and can be. The art of The Laramie Project is in how honestly and accurately it captures a moment in time and how, although [it’s] the opinions of specific people in a specific place at this specific time, this could have happened anywhere to anyone. Its sense of familiarity made it so raw and so real and that is one of the great achievements of this work, in my opinion.
I wanted to put these two plays on together for a few reasons – first and foremost because I wanted to tell a more holistic story – we now have insight into the way that a story moves and attitudes change over time. In many ways, Ten Years Later highlights opinions that are almost harder to stomach because you know that these are no longer comments in a moment of grief, or a quick response to a tragic time. Ten years have passed and, in many instances, the attitudes in the town haven’t progressed to represent that elapsed time.
Particularly for many LGBTQI communities, these twenty years [since Matthew’s death] have seen great changes – some positive and some not; some that came smoothly and quickly and some that caused a lot of hurt and harm as they happened. This is a community that has been fighting for acceptance for a long time and I think many people can appreciate how much difference each passing decade has made.
Why is it important to retell this story now in Sydney, Australia?
CF: As much as we may like to think of this event as an incident that happened twenty years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, I think that one of the most disturbing things – and we have spoken about this quite extensively with our cast in rehearsals – is that all of us know that it could just as easily happen here in Sydney tomorrow. We want to think that we have moved forward, we have progressed from these acts of hatred because we live in a more accepting society. And whilst that may be true for many of us, it is not the whole truth about the times we live in and we were starkly reminded of that through last year’s plebiscite for marriage equality. We saw the vote turn into a smear campaign and we were reminded that intolerance exists and, when provoked, it can be apparent again in our daily lives.
So we need to keep telling stories like The Laramie Project because we need to keep the streams of conversation open. We need to teach our youth that it is okay to be who you are and that you deserve to live in a world free from the threats that Matthew Shepard endured simply because of his sexuality.
We need to remember that there is so much progress that still needs to be made – across a number of communities, including the LGBTQI communities – before we can claim success in achieving an equal society.
RN: This is an important story to tell because crimes like this are not contained to small rural towns. Sydney has its own sordid history of hate crimes – there are up to 80 unsolved murders of gay men that took place in Sydney in the 1980s, happening just after the decriminalisation of male homosexual sex. These cases were only recently reopened, 35 years after their families lost these men. We can’t limit these stories to four decades ago either – violence against the LGBTQI community increased dramatically in the period leading up to last year’s plebiscite. By telling stories, like that of Matthew Shepard’s, we recognise what the LGBTQI community has sacrificed for so many years, and make sure that their voices are never forgotten.
This production of the Laramie Project and the Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is the first time they’ve been performed together in Sydney, but it also coincides with some major dates: what is the significance of this for your company and the community?
CF: Our show dates are no accident – I specifically wanted to tell these stories at this time for a number of reasons. Firstly, during our run, we will mark World AIDS Day. At the time of Matthew’s death, he didn’t yet know but he had recently contracted HIV. In his mother Judy Shepard’s book she talks about what this may have meant for him in the years to come and how she can only speculate.
This day is also important because it marks a day to remember one of the most significant infections to devastate the world in the 20th century – and, in particular, one of the greatest tragedies for the LGBTQI communities. Matthew’s story has become an important LGBTQI story because it has been an example to call on change and conversation and so we feel it is a very important story to tell on World AIDS Day and to use as a platform to raise awareness about this day as well as to raise funds through collections at our performances to continue in the fight against AIDS and the improvement of the lives of those vulnerable in the LGBTQI communtiies.
As well as marking the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s murder, we are also marking the first anniversary of the Yes Vote in Australia which will come up just one week before we open. Whilst the outcome of the Yes Vote was positive, it would be detrimental to us as a community to forget the hurt and hatred that was also displayed. It is important that we remember that intolerance remains in our communities and that we are vigilant about discussing these baseless hatreds because it is the only way that we will move forward as a community. We want our shows to be part of this conversation and we believe that this is the right time to be speaking about it – we have come so far and yet the very threat that Matthew faced twenty years ago in Wyoming remains true for so many Australians today. I felt that it was the right time for art in Australia to call on this conversation and I am very proud that Theatre Travels’s debut performance will be with these two powerhouse shows.
How do these two productions speak to and about each other as representations of a town and a nation changing (or staying the same)?
RN: It’s interesting, because while many things in Laramie changed as a result of Matthew’s death, many things stayed the same. When Carly and I went to Laramie in September, Matthew doesn’t appear to be mentioned as part of Laramie’s history – it appears as if they want it swept under the rug. The one memorial dedicated to him is a small bench on the University of Wyoming campus, which doesn’t even mention who he was, or why his death was significant enough to receive that memorial.
However, what Matthew’s parents focus on, and what I would like to focus on, are the things that came about as a result of his death that were immensely beneficial to the LGBTQI community. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was partially conceived as a response to Matthew’s murder, and has positively changed a lot of the legislation surrounding victims of hate crimes. Matthew’s death was also the driving force behind the development of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which provides an incredible amount of resources for LGBT youth and their families.
Playwright and founder of the Tectonic Theatre Project, Moises Kaufman speaks cautiously about how “history is malleable” and requires vigilance in listening and retelling. How does this speak to the political climate globally where, “truth isn’t truth”? (Rudy Giuliani)
RN: You will receive a different version of history depending on who you ask – that’s why verbatim theatre is so valuable. To be able to understand a historical event from every angle allows us to look at that event objectively, and, in a story like that of Matthew Shepard’s, [it] allows us to understand how toxic attitudes towards people can manifest.
CF: What is really interesting about Ten Years Later is that it captures people in the midst of trying to rewrite their own legacy and to change their version of history. Specifically, we see that a lot of people question whether Matthew’s death was even a hate crime or just a drug deal or robbery gone wrong. I think that verbatim theatre, as Rosie said, is a really interesting way of capturing people’s truths in the moment and preserving them. The Laramie Project is less about the details of Matthew’s murder, and more about the community’s perceptions and responses to it. In this instance, there are hundreds of truths from the hundreds of people interviewed. In fact, I suppose you could really even go far as to say that truth is malleable too and we see that through Ten Years Later but we also see that through our news sources daily too.
How have the cast and crew found working on this project? Were they all familiar with the story beforehand?
RN: I think this has been a really transformative process for everyone. We noticed during auditions that the play was one of the main incentives for many of the actors – this is a story that many have studied in school, or read about, and some remember the news reports that came flooding in through the Australian media when Matthew’s attack happened. The story of The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is significant for a great deal of people, including our cast and crew. Speaking with the team, you can see that Matthew’s story has had an effect on each and every one of them – this is more than just an acting job for a lot of them, it’s a chance to get involved with the telling of a story that is still devastatingly relevant.
There’s also a sense of pride that comes from working on this show – of being a part of Matthew’s movement, and the movement towards erasing hate from our society. Many of us are still fighting for equality as members of the LGBTQI community, and sparking discussion through our art is an important part of keeping that movement going. To be able to tell Matthew’s story on the 20th anniversary of his death as part of that is an honour.
The Laramie Project is well-known as a devastating script about a brutal hate crime but you’re preparing your production for school viewings. What are you hoping to achieve by sharing this story with younger audience members particularly?
CF: I think that the power of this story comes in the fact that the Tectonic Theater Project company members who wrote the play really captured these vast and beautiful moments of light and shade. There are some heartbreaking moments – particularly when we hear from Dennis Shepard – Matthew’s father, towards the end of The Laramie Project. No one wants to ever have to imagine losing anyone they love and to hear a parent express the loss of their child is always hard. But then there are also lots of moments of great humour and expressions of resilience and hope – particularly in moments like Romaine Patterson’s Angel Project, etc. It’s known for being devastating because the trauma that it follows was horrific. But I think that it is really important to remember that it is a portrait of a community, not a portrayal of a crime. And because of that, we feel that the story is appropriate for those aged 13 and up.
I hope that students will see the show and understand a form of theatre that may be new to them. I hope that they will stop and consider, through conversation following the show, the changes that have been made between the show and their everyday lives. I hope that they will be able to recognise how harmful hatred is and how important it is to show respect for others.
What’s next? When the world keeps turning after Matthew Shepard’s death and public policy seems to take two steps forward, one back, where are we going and how are we getting there?
RN: The world would keep turning if we all died, but I don’t think that’s the point. We need to acknowledge the fight that generations before us pushed for, and the progress that they made so that we can even be at this point. I want to remember not just how devastating Matthew’s murder is, but remember what his death has changed for the LGBTQI community.
In regards to policies surrounding this community, it is absolutely not good enough. To have the rights and humanity of me, my friends and my family members questioned during last year’s debate was demeaning and dehumanising. Yet, however slowly, we are moving forward in the face of adversity. The power of this community is strong. We will get there by not giving up, and we will get there with a fight.
What has being a part of this project done for you individually? How have you changed; what you have you gained or lost?
CF: Lost…a lot of sleep! It’s very nerve wracking to launch a new theatre company with such an enormous project – two shows! – and to know the importance of the plays and doing them right! But that said, I am so excited about what we are creating and am beyond proud of the work and of each member of our cast and creative team.
Gained – wow – a lot! I feel I have gained greater appreciation into the power of verbatim theatre and the courage shown by the Tectonic Theater Project company members in going to Laramie and embarking on this project. I interviewed Andy Paris, one of the original company members, a couple months ago and his stories about first going into Laramie and the resistance that they were shown really made me stop and appreciate how remarkable it is that we have this record of this time and community at all.
I also feel I have really grown a lot in my craft – working with this team and on shows that I feel so passionately about has really allowed me to engage with these works on a deeper and more meaningful level than ever, culminating in a trip to Laramie, Wyoming two weeks ago; to really go and experience and live the world of the play for myself. I have loved the journey that producing and directing these shows have taken me on so far and I cannot wait to see all our work come to fruition in November!
RN: I’m with Carly on the sleep front – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Researching this play has taken me down the rabbit hole of hate crime stories, and this has definitely affected me. Reminding myself about the extent of the persecution the LGBTQI community has faced has repeatedly broken my heart, but it has also reminded me that we need to keep fighting. Crimes like this are still happening, even more so to POC or transgender members of the community.
Working on The Laramie Project has helped me grow as an artist, as well as an activist. I am so lucky to work on a creative team with such talented individuals, and their work has consistently encouraged me to improve myself. I am really keen to keep growing with this work and to see how this story keeps developing throughout the rehearsal process.
This has been the most rewarding project to work on, and I am so excited to bring these stories to the stage during such an important anniversary.
NOTE: Responses have been edited for clarity.
The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later will have a brief season from November 28th – December 8th at the Seymour Centre. On December 1st, Theatre Travels will recognise World AIDS Day with consecutive performances of the two shows.
For more information and tickets, view here.