UArizona professor reflects on legacy and impact of 'The Laramie Project'

students rehearsing "the laramie project"

From left, School of Theatre, Film and TV students Isabella Russo, Jackson Stelmarski and Hope Niven rehearse for the University of Arizona debut of "The Laramie Project."

Tim Fuller

Twenty-five years ago, members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project were looking for a story to tell. The group, along with the rest of the country, had heard the tragic story of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who, on an early October night in 1998, was brutally killed in one of the most infamous crimes against an LGBTQ+ person in American history.

Greg Pierotti, assistant professor, School of Theatre, Film and Television

Greg Pierotti

Among the members of the theater group was Greg Pierotti, now an assistant professor in the University of Arizona's School of Theatre, Film and Television in the College of Fine Arts.

"We were all so moved and devastated by what we saw on the news," Pierotti said. "Our company had done a previous production, "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," which  examined a historical event and deconstructed it through a variety of cultural lenses and perspectives. We wanted to find out if we could do something similar with a current event."

Pierotti and other members of the group took a trip to Laramie, Wyoming, where the attack had taken place, to interview people and gather material. The trip became the first step in the development of "The Laramie Project," a play that tells the story of Shepard, the people of Laramie and the theater group itself.

The play, which has been staged hundreds of times throughout the world, comes to UArizona for the first time beginning Oct. 12. Pierotti is directing the student-led production, which opens the school's 2023-24 theater season.

As part of the 25th anniversary remembrance, Matthew Shepard's parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, will come to the Tucson campus to present "Matthew Shepard's Legacy: Then and Now" at 7 p.m. on Oct. 19 at the Gallagher Theater in the Student Union Memorial Center. The event, presented by the School of Theatre, Film and Television and the University's LGBTQ+ Institute, is free and open to the public.

The Shepards will also speak to members of the audience after the Oct. 20 performance of "The Laramie Project" at the Tornabene Theatre at 1025 N. Olive Road.

Pierotti spoke about the lasting impact of the events of 25 years ago and how a new generation of students is reacting to the material.

Q: When you and your colleagues went to Laramie, what was your experience? What surprised you?

A: The thing that struck me most is that what was presented to me was not the full story. As I watched the story unfold in the mainstream media in New York City, there was this presentation of Laramie, Wyoming, as kind of a hate-crime capital – sort of a sinister Western kind of vibe. So I went in a bit fearful as a gay person wondering if this was not a safe place for me.

When we went to Laramie, yes, we did meet some unpleasant characters, just like you would in any town in America. But we also encountered a lot of really tenderhearted, dignified people grappling with this new reputation that they'd been given as well as the atrocity of what had happened in their midst. Everyone was doing their best to understand and cope with what had happened. It wasn't this monolithic, sinister community that had been portrayed.

Q: As our culture and sensitivities continue to evolve, why is it important for modern audiences to continue to be exposed to this story?

student smiles while rehearsing a play scene with other cast members

School of Theatre, Film and Television student Babacar Ba (center, facing camera) rehearses a scene for "The Laramie Project."

Tim Fuller

A: This is a play about how hate in all of its different layers and manifestations creates harm for people. In a larger way, I think the play is important now because there is a lot of division in the country. Regardless of whether people understand someone else's lifestyle, it's important to know that everybody has inherent worth and human dignity.

For me, what's really important and beautiful about the play is that we see a lot of people in Laramie who aren't clear about how they feel about the death penalty, hate-crime legislation or the gay community, but they still do their best to recognize the dignity and worth of this person who was so brutally harmed. That sentiment is more important than ever today.

Q: Matthew Shepard's parents are coming to the university to speak at multiple events. What has their impact been over the last 25 years?

A: They're the most astounding people I know. They took this event, which could have crushed anybody's spirit, and rather than collapsing into their grief, they used that to fuel a level of activism and care that extends on and on in the world.

mean speaks to a woman during a play rehearsal

"The Laramie Project" co-creator and director Greg Pierotti chats with student Isabella Russo during a rehearsal for the show.

Tim Fuller

They founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which was initially founded to enhance and improve reporting on hate crimes, but they have also become advocates and allies for the queer community. They have this very parental quality but they're also fierce activists. I'm just always awestruck by them.

Q: The students working on this show were not alive when this happened. What has their reaction been during the process?

A: It's been really wonderful to watch them interact with the material. As we read the play out loud for the first time, you could completely feel a shift in the room as people started to listen to the play and really understand the story. People were weeping and laughing at different parts. It was profound to watch them come into a different relationship with the words.

They're all very openhearted people and they find this story devastating. While there are some really funny characters in this show, there are also a couple of really difficult people and I love the students for having a hard time with what they have to say. But they have to say them. Part of our job as actors is to make a case for difficult people and tell their truth. But I really do think it's beautiful that they don't want to say those things.

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