In 1998, a 21-year-old gay man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming. Matthew died from head injuries after spending 6 days in a coma. The murder brought national attention to hate crime legislation. It also received attention from the Tectonic Theatre company. The group traveled to Wyoming and created the documentary theatre piece called The Laramie Project. The show runs Thursdays-Sundays at Cape Fear Playhouse through June 25.
Steve Vernon, the Artistic Director of Big Dawg Productions, has directed The Laramie Project twice-once for Opera House Theatre Company and once at UNCW. This year, he's overseen the production at the Cape Fear Playhouse with director Josh Bailey. Listen above, and read the extended interview below.
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Steve Vernon: It's based on the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Laramie, Wyoming. And the play was formed by the Tectonic Theatre Company who traveled to Laramie after hearing about the events through the national media, and they interviewed the townspeople, some who knew Matthew, who didn't, just to get a picture of not only Matthew Shepard, but of the town of Laramie, which had been put under this microscope as far as a global audience. And what fascinates me is it's a very human story about Matthew Shepard and the people that loved him and cared for him. But it's also a very human story in the respect that it really examines what it means to be a small town in America, and by extension what it means to be American.
You know all the different tensions that we feel. [characterization] "You know I'm not against gays but you know one hit on me in a bar I pop him in the mouth.” "I certainly don't think this boy should have done that to him. But I don't think they would have gone to jail as long as they did if it had been a straight kid." You know, all the conflicting things that kind of came to the surface as far as conversations go.
Gina: And then as to the way that these come out, these are these different feelings that exist within the heart of one person- and across a town-is is because it's all literal documentary.
Steve: Exactly. Every word that you hear spoken in the play-- the theater company from New York, Tectonic, did over 200 interviews of Laramie residents and everything that you hear on stage comes from those interviews or court transcripts, so that the actors who are on stage are speaking the words of real human beings-- you can find them on Facebook if you look for them. And so these are not just characters, they are real persons.
Gina: Scott Davis, what have you been doing with this show?
Scott: Well Steve Vernon invited me to take on the role of technical director for for Big Dawg Productions which worked out timing-wise. I've been doing a lot of live entertainment work around town. It’s really where I started you so many years ago so it's kind of come full circle. So I took on the role of a production designer and lighting designer and chief bottle washer and have lived in that theater for the last two and a half weeks as we've been building this show.
[Cape Fear Playhouse]...it's such a communal space. And when you walk into it even when we're building, it's a very positive vibe in there. And a show like this bringing together 12 actors --- the camaraderie and the gathering--it's just it's just it's a beautiful thing. I mean, that's one of the things I love about theater is, it really does bring people from so many different places together to say something, and just that bond that they get.
Steve: I think that that's something inherent in the script to begin with. It sounds cliche to say “this play
changed my life,” but this play has changed a lot of people's lives for the better as far as giving them a sense of "I'm not the only one that feels this pain" or "Wow, that opened my eyes, I never thought of something like that before." From an audience perspective, I think it does have the capability to do that. But even from an actor perspective, it's very difficult to channel the emotions that are necessary for the audience to get all the messages and not become closer with one another and to really bond. And this is the third cast that I've encountered and I've found that to be the case in each instance.
Scott: The support of the cast to one another- because every actor is doing four or five roles at least…
Steve: At least.
Scott: Right, so not only are you are there incredible emotional moments, but you're one character and then literally two minutes later, you're another character with another emotional hook and so it's it's a very exhausting but also a very uplifting kind of environment. And I think again I think it's the kind of thing that has brought them closer together supporting one another as as you watch them jump from one character to the next, to the next.
Steve: And another cool thing about that that deals with the structure of the show. In one , you can be playing a 21 year old lesbian and then a couple of scenes later you're someone who's very anti-homosexual. So most of the actors have the opportunity to play emotions and human beings all across the range. So it's not just “all you are the good guys, all of you are the bad guys.” And the play is a really good job for the most part...yes, there's villains in every story, but for the most part it does an excellent job of not making everybody who is not supportive of what they call “the gay lifestyle”-not all of those people are represented as villains, are just presented as having different beliefs.
Gina: That's that's exactly what I just thought about when you said-about playing the different parts. Is is it compassionate towards people who...
Steve: There are moments of unexpected compassion towards people who, in careless hands, could be presented as as negative human beings.
Gina: You just said that so well.
Steve: Thank you. Josh Bailey, who's directing the sho,w has been teaching The Laramie Project as part of his classroom instruction for the last four years or so. So he's very familiar with the piece and we began talking about it last year when I mentioned I was thinking about bringing Larramie into this season. He was very excited about the prospect of that happening and I think he was just a really good fit for the show.
You know, the activist aspect of it it is hard. And I remember almost falling into this trap when I directed it for the first time, it's very hard not to become preachy with that material, you really have to to rein in a lot of the things that you think could fit with this. And you have to accept it in its purest form instead of trying to add your own agenda to it. The play has an agenda, there's no doubt about that. But you don't have to be a homosexual person or even an "ally," as it's termed these days, to learn from it, get from it, enjoy it for what it is. But you do have to be very careful when presenting the material not to just go a little overboard with it.
Scott: Because it's because it's not a "gay show," it's not a "hate show," it's a thinking show. I mean one of the things we talk about is hoping that members of the community come to see this because they don't know the story, because they've they've heard about it but they don't remember it. And and also too, it's one thing when you got a room full of people that support a cause you're doing or a theater piece you're doing, but it's even more exciting to me when you get somebody that really doesn't have an opinion one way or the other, and perhaps their opinion adjusts a little bit because of something they just watched.
Steve: Exactly, I mean that's that's who I would really hope would come see this-is anybody-but especially people that haven't decided what side of the fence they are on as far as the issue goes, or somebody else who just needs a little bit of exposure to the human side of an issue in order to feel something
Scott: To realize that there is nothing is black and white.
Steve: Right. It's all shades of gray.
Steve: Except for black paint and white paint. But if you mix some you get gray. But I'm not allowed to touch it.
Scott: Don't touch my paint.
Gina: Do tell me about the set. I saw the set and I didn't know that it was the Cape Fear Playhouse!
Scott: I just finished the floor yesterday morning and this set has really gone through a lot of changes in terms of our conversations, where we originally thought it was going to where it's it's come to, it really has kind of evolved as the show has grown. And as the actors were finding themselves more and more and the power of the piece was coming out. I mean I think that's really where you know Steve would walk up to me and say, “What do you think instead of doing this we were talking about we do this because...” It’s just really been a fun kind of project. I didn't put anything on paper, we're you know we're still somewhat a guerrilla theater company in terms of we have a lot of limitations. So it is half improvisation based on the experience we're having as we're building a show.
And and this this set-- this show requires a lot of images and a lot of that lot of productions usually do some sort of slide or, I should say, projection kind of system. We want to kind of accent the fact that it was such a media circus in Laramie. So what we've done is we've hung a bunch of flat screen TVs. And that's where our images are coming which represent the media in the story. And so that's been kind of an interesting challenge. When we were first talking about this idea you kno,w I said oh yeah I know exactly what to do. Well... what I have learned about this is that I know just enough to make it work if I have everything-- brand new. But when you're borrowing and begging and everything...I definitely had some challenges along the way--I think I think I finally resolved everything yesterday morning.
[Steve and Scott start knocking on every wooden object in the studio]
Gina: How many screens?
Scott: We've got six and all of them are going to have images.
Steve: There are moments of levity and moments of humor. You can't tell any story about human beings without those popping in, and I don't want people to think they're going to leave the theater completely depressed or what have you, there are moments that are very uplifting. And again there are moments of humor, because in any tragedy, there are moments where human beings find humor. That's how we keep going on and that's what brings hope to us, that hope that allows us to believe that things can change, things can get better.
Scott: And everyone who comes to see the show will see themselves somewhere in the show.
Cast of "The Laramie Project"