Hop Against Homophobia: A Laramie Interview

May 17, 2012

[Trigger warning: This post contains reference to a hate crime and hate speech.]

Today I want to talk about progress. In the case of homophobia, I gotta say that one of the most effective life-changers I've personally seen in action has to be The Laramie Project. From the website:
On October 6th of 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. He died 6 days later. His torture and murder became a watershed historical moment in America that highlighted many of the fault lines in our culture.
A month after the murder, the members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted interviews with the people of the town. From these interviews they wrote the play The Laramie Project, which they later made into a film for HBO.

Seeing The Laramie Project live in a small, black box type theater is one hell of an intense experience. The intimate setup and unflinching script is a necessary punch to the gut. Yes, there are some angels (or at least, those with angel wings) and villains (one word: Westboro), but they're all painfully human. And there's no avoiding how much that's just like everywhere else.

Walking out of that theater, I saw peoples' faces, heard the things they said, talked to my (super heteronormative but usually cool) parents and (straight, cis, but sympathetic--clearly) husband about their experience. Everyone's is different, of course, depending on their own level of awareness, acceptance, and privilege, but everyone was hit hard. The net is full of excellent testimonials on the subject, so  I won't regale you with mine. The point is: it works.

Being a congenital theater kid, I couldn't help but wonder how the actors feel. I mean, the people and events they're depicting are real. This happened and could happen anywhere. Getting it right is a big responsibility and, as you might expect, an even bigger experience.

Lucky me, I have a connection. My friend Kassidy Wells (the supertalented actor in the chair right here*) has kindly agreed to stop by for the Hop Against Homophobia and answer some questions about producing The Laramie Project last year at West Liberty State University. Thanks, Kassidy. You're made of rainbows and golden sunshine <3

Q: Last year, the WLSU drama department chose The Laramie Project as their spring show. Who was the one who made that decision, and what was the motivation for choosing it?
A: Our director Michael Aulick chose this show for our February 2011 production. It was performed as a student-directed production at the school where he previously worked, and he was eager to take on such a controversial story like Matthew's. Also, the show was chosen to really challenge our theater program. Most of the actors were underclassmen at the time, and he was searching for a show that would challenge the actors to stretch outside our comfort zone, and this show did that.

Q: Another reason theater is one of my favorite art forms. So, we've talked about this before; you mentioned how this particular show brought a lot of people to the department who might not have been interested in it before, and maybe vice versa?
A: Definitely. As it has always been with the Hilltop Players, the shows are open-auditioned; anyone from on or off campus are welcome to audition for a role in any production. The Laramie Project brought out students from the department, as well as some newcomers. Luke, a senior biology major who had just been accepted into med school, auditioned and took on several roles with eagerness and professionalism. His performance was so great, you would have thought he was a theater major the whole time (which really pissed us off that he came to us so late). Also, Kevin, an education major in his mid-40s, was easily the most impacted from this whole experience. It was his first show with West Lib, and he has continued to perform with us ever since.

Q: That's brilliant, and just the kind of thing I'm talking about, with the impact this show has on people. And you did the show with how many cast members playing how many roles?
A: Our production of The Laramie Project was done with about 12 cast members, portraying anywhere from 4-7 characters each. The original cast was several fewer cast members, each taking on as many as 10-11 characters. Our director wanted to give as many actors as possible the chance to take on numerous roles. Trust me, playing five characters is plenty!

Q: Yeah, what a mindbender--especially with all the research you did. You weren't just playing the people in Laramie, but the members of the Tectonic Theater Project who originally went to Laramie and conducted the interviews, right? These are real people, still around today. What kind of research did that entail for you all?
A: The first thing we did was create a Facebook group on which the entire cast and crew could communicate about our findings on the people of Laramie and the Tectonic Theater Project. We researched our roles, and made and effort to email and reach out to those who we were portraying. In fact, several cast members received emails from the people of Laramie and the Tectonic Theater project, with insight about themselves and the story about Laramie after Matthew Shepard's death. Personally, I watched the tv movie about the incident and read Judy Shepard's book (an account of everything leading up to and after Matthew's death). These tools (especially the book) really gave me a closer look on the reality and severity about what happened in Laramie, which really impacted me personally during performance.

Q: Storytelling at its finest, man. Also, WLSU has a Laramie native on staff, and he said he wanted to help you all get the nuanced portrayal of the town right. What kind of things did he say or do to help you all in that direction?
A: One of our music faculty lived in Laramie, Wyoming for a time, and was gracious enough to sit down with the cast one evening after rehearsal and tell us the story from a native's point of view. He was there shortly after Matthew's death, and he emphasized to us about how Laramie was a small town, very similar to West Lib. It was a college town (as is ours), and nothing terribly controversial ever happened there. Everyone knew everyone. It was a small town in which "these things didn't happen", when in fact, these things happen everywhere. He mentioned that this event effected the entire community. Aside from the overwhelming press and media, Laramie was no longer a college town that flew under the radar. It was now branded, labeled, stereotyped. Like Zubaida Ula said in her monologue in the show, "....shit like this happens. We ARE like this".

Q: That was one of the many moments in the show that really stuck with me--coming from where we do, especially. I think one of the best things about The Laramie Project is that it isn't flat--or it wasn't when I saw you all do it. Every character was good and bad and funny and sad and smart and not-so-smart. Human. It leaves you with the impression that this really could be any town in America. Did you all come at it from that perspective, that this was the point of the show, or did it mean something else to you?
A: Like I said above, this is a great show to do in colleges, because awareness needs to be made that we cannot allow terrible things like this to happen in our community. There is so much controversy that Matthew was "asking for it," or that he deserved to be treated that way, but that is absolute garbage. No, no one is perfect, and I'm sure Matthew had his faults, as we all do. However, there is no way in hell that ANYONE deserves what happened to Matthew Shepard. Laramie was a small town just like my college town, and just like so many places all over the country. This show shed light on the issue of prejudice against the LGBT community, and even led to the resurrection of our GSA group on campus, P.R.I.D.E. This organization was inactive for years, and because of the interest and dedication that "The Laramie Project" stirred up, it was reinstated and is now a regularly active club on campus. This show has made such a difference in so many communities.

Q: Too right, fuck that victim-blaming bullshit, man--it's so horrific, but at least people were compelled to take their communities and groups back.West Liberty is pretty tight-knit, and bringing a show like this must've had everyone talking. What was the other buzz on campus, outside the drama department and awesomely resurrected LGBTQ organizations? Both the show itself and the threats of certain organizations coming to protest...
A: Although good things were arising from the production of this show, some similar problems arose for us that it has for so many others.....aka the Westboro Baptist Church. They have been protesting productions of The Laramie Project since the play's inception and post their protest schedule on their absolutely revolting website godhatesfags.com [TW #2--click at your own risk -ed]. One of the members of our show discovered that Westboro was planning to come to West Liberty. Oh man, did it cause a stir! Students actually set up chairs and signs to counter the protest. However, the Westboro Baptist Church ended up not attending the scheduled protest, but it was incredible to see how students from outside the production were prepared and willing to support this project.

Q: Fist bumps for the awesome counter-protesters. It does the heart good--as it did in the show itself, actually. Like I was saying, I don't know anyone who walked away from seeing this show without it having introduced some kind of new perspective, no matter their point of view. Can you talk a little about that experience from a cast perspective?
A: This show had a profound impact on this cast. Through all of our research, contacts, and personal study, we really felt connected with the people, the town, and with Matthew. Our director constantly told us that the biggest objective of this projection was to STAY TRUE to the characters, the town, and to Matthew. Every performance of The Laramie Project makes an impact.

Q: Any closing thoughts about the experience of producing this play versus the many, many other shows you've done, both at WLSU and elsewhere?
A: The fact that we were not just speaking fictional words, work portraying people that came out of the mind of a playwright really made me feel like I was making a difference, in however small a way that may be. Being part of something that so many people have striven towards; telling a story that will change so many lives and hopefully stave off these terrible incidents from happening again, is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. The Laramie Project, The Matthew Shepard Foundaton, and anything that has come out of the tragedy really brought forth a light and understanding of homophobia that had rarely been discussed. I will never, ever forget this experience and all that it has meant to all of us.

Thanks so much, Kassidy. That's a perspective I'd never have heard on the subject if not for you. <3

Right, so as a thank you to all y'all lovely folk who are spreading awareness today, let's get to the giveaway. Drop your email address (or twitter, or goodreads username, or something where I can get hold of you if you win) in a comment on this post. If you have an experience with The Laramie Project, let me know about it. If you don't, hey, it's all good. It's awesome of you just to take part in the blog hop. That's worth an entry.

I'll let Random.org pick a commenter number after the hop is over. One winner will get a pack of ERASE HATE bracelets from the Matthew Shepard Foundation, perfect for sharing with pals. (I'm sending Kassidy  and Nick** my extras.) And, if the winner wants, an eBook with a LGBTQ (read: human) protag. The winner can pick any one of mine they like. Hell, if you want a print book, you can even pick one of the dark fantasies I do as KV Taylor instead, and I'll graffiti it up for you real nice, since they fit the bill too.

And you can get an extra shot (or three) at some Superpowered Love over at Joyfully Jay for the hop. And please don't forget to check out all the other hop participants, who have fabulous prizes and cool things to say. <3

*Also, my awesome sister-in-not-quite-law? *fist bump*
**My awesome brother.
Anonymous said...

You rock!!! Katey--thank you--for the interview--for the beauty of your heart!!!! Just love you!!! SO fucking proud to know you!!!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Katey. Thanks:)!

J.A. Rock said...

Awesome post. I was in a production of The Laramie Project when I was sixteen. My acting skills were not exactly refined, but having the opportunity to be part of that play, especially in a small conservative town whose theaters generally stuck to The Sound of Music, really was incredible.

Great interview.

Nephy's World said...

Puts my feeble attempt to shame. Awesome blog post

Katey said...

Awww, Sammy. <3 <3

Hey, Jordie! Thanks for stopping by and serious hugs.

JA, oh man, I can't believe we didn't discuss The Laramie Project when you were here. I guess we were too busy watching bad CG blood fly. Hey, Spartacus, remember that one time...? BEST DAY EVER.

But yes. That. Sound of Music crowd. Word.

Nephylim, but seriously, all contributions to this awesome cause are massive--and yours is full of logic and love ;)

KimberlyFDR said...

Love should always triumph over hate and I believe it always will!

Thank you for taking part in the hop :)


Megan Derr said...

Wonderful post. Many props to all the people involved in that; I'm glad its there and making a difference, though I fucking hate how it came to be.

Katey said...

Kimberly, here's hoping, for sure! Thanks for dropping in.

Hi, Megan! And yeah, too right. That's a big part of the ugly the show doesn't shy away from: how goddamn horrific the reality is--the reality that the show itself even has to exist. Hurts so bad.

Vicktor Alexander said...

Oh my Katey. You make my heart smile so big. Thank you so much for this post and for interviewing your friend. I can remember when the attack on Matthew Shepard happened. It wasn't something that anyone in my family was ever going to discuss had I not brought it up. I distinctly remember asking my bio mom if it was like what happened to Emmett Till (a young black boy who was brutally murdered and tossed in a lake after whistling at a white woman down in the South during the 60s/70s). She got quiet and then nodded before telling me that sometimes people hurt others because they don't agree with them. I wish that understanding had extended to me, but I remember the feeling that I felt that day, it's something that I still carry around in my chest to this day. That intense urge to do something anything to help, to make a difference.

Thanks again Katey.

Tara Lain said...

Thank you, Katey. Great post. and i'm looking forward to hosting you next week too! : )

Unknown said...

Thank you for being part of this HOP and helping shine a light on this important issue.


Wade said...

thank you for your post. And for blog hopping! I love theater and listening to your opinion of the Laramie Project made me want to see it. (and experience it)

Wade :)

Emily said...

Thanks a ton for the awesome interview!! I remember seeing the Laramie Project and it was shocking and moving. Thanks for sharing this with everyone.

tiger-chick-1 (at) hotmail (dot) com

Katey said...

Oh Vic, yeah, that's exactly it. It's amazing that people can put on blinders to one kind of hate, can be selective about what's okay and not. Fucking heartbreaking, man. And you are definitely doing something--more than something. Thank you so much for all of it <3

Tara, thanks for dropping by. You're awesome. :D

Kerry, *fist bump*

Heya, Wade. It's definitely an experience I'll never forget, even just being in the audience. I hope you get the chance of it someday!

Emily, yeah, it really is shocking, isn't it? Like just the fact that this happened. Man. Good word for it.

Anonymous said...

I always wondered if I could handle The Laramie Project, since even Take Me Out broke my heart. I'll look for a local production now. Great interview.


nancy said...

Wonderful post! I have not seen this play but I cry just thinking about the events it portrays. This is a rough hop, every stop has another heartbreaking story but they must be told before we can ever expect an end to this.

Foretta said...

I showed a bunch of these post to the teens in my family to show them how hurt some "innocent" remarks are to many others. I get so annoyed when my nephew says "you're so gay". ERRRR drove me crazy. I know he didn't mean anything by it but it is so wrong to use that as a saying. I think that these post have helped. Thank you all for sharing with us!

StacieD said...

I haven't been to a performance of The Laramie Project but I have watched several documentaries about the inception of the play. I have seen the TV movie as well. The story breaks my heart. No one should be bullied, much less murdered, for their sexual orientation. I made a donation to The Matthew Shepard Foundation in honor of I.D.A.H.O.

geishasmom73 AT yahoo DOT com

Yvette said...

Thanks for participating for this wonderful cause of awareness…I teach high schoolers and this is a topic that we discuss at length. I just want them to be aware and know that they have the power to change the world!

L.M. Brown said...

Great interview. I don't think The Laramie Project has made it over to this side of the pond yet. Although I had heard of it I didn't know as much about it as I do now. Thanks for the great and informative interview.

wulf said...

That was an awesome blog post!

Thanks for participating in this hop, I'm really enjoying it.


Erica Pike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ParanormalRomanceFan said...

I have to admit that I didn't know much about The Laramie Project, but thanks to your GREAT Interview Katey, I do now & want to see it.

You are so Passionate in Everything you do Katey....YOU ROCK!!!!

I would very much appreciate the opportunity to be considered in your AWESOME Giveaway. Thank You!

Take care Katey, Big Cyber Hugs to Ya & Stay Naughty,
PaParanormalFan (Renee’ S.)
paranormalromancefan at yahoo dot com

Erica Pike said...

Wow, thanks for that. So informative (and dare I say fun? Heck, you always make things sound fun, Katey).

I'd never heard of "The Laramie Project" before, but now I'm going to have to hunt down the film. If they don't have it at the GLBTQ library, then I suppose I can always buy it and then donate it to the library ;)

eripike at gmail dot com

gigi said...

Thanks for participating in the HOP


Anna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna said...

Thanks for participating!!


Peggy said...

Thank you for the post on such a great cause. I have enjoyed the hop.


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