Theatre: The Laramie Project - 10 Years Later

By Dionne Christian

Actors Leon Wadham and Martyn Wood perform in The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.
Actors Leon Wadham and Martyn Wood perform in The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.

If it hadn't been for the issue of failing to obtain a work visa, Kate McGill might well be in the United States right now working with the Tectonic Theater Project on another of its verbatim theatre pieces.

However, chances are McGill, who worked with Tectonic in 2009, would have returned home to New Zealand at some point to stage the play she is now co-directing (with Daniel Williams), given how strongly she feels about the production.

Created by Tectonic, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (TPL:10) is an epilogue to its 2000 production The Laramie Project which involved interviewing more than 200 people in the Wyoming town of Laramie. It made headlines in 1998 as the place where gay student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the dusty outskirts of the town. Shepard was just 21 and his death provoked an outcry about the lack of laws against hate crimes in the United States.

Tectonic started work on The Laramie Project just five weeks after Shepard's murder. Using words spoken by those who lived there, the aim was to chronicle what life in the town was like and how such a crime may have taken place there.

The play is now one of the most performed in America and, in 2002, was made into a film which opened that year's Sundance Film Festival and received four Emmy award nominations.

In 2008, members of Tectonic returned to Laramie to find out what had or hadn't changed in the decade since the murder. McGill worked with Tectonic on the first production of TPL:10 which became something of a theatre event when it opened on October 12, 2009, in 150 theatres on the same night.

"It's a play about discussion and the importance of this in understanding other points of view in order to move forward, to make social change," she says. "It questions without attacking.

"I think once you see a play like this, it becomes much more difficult to stand back and just let things, like violence and intolerance, happen. It's extremely relevant given the current debate in New Zealand about gay marriage which shows we still don't have equal rights for all."

McGill later travelled to Laramie with a friend to try to gain a greater understanding of the place. She found, not surprisingly, an ordinary middle-American town with people going about their business, some unaware such a crime had taken place there. In one cafe, she was overheard talking about Matthew Shepard and politely, but firmly, asked not to do so.

She acknowledges the journey was an attempt to understand unfamiliar attitudes and outlooks, but is also brave enough to admit that at times it felt like an adventurous road trip. When McGill found a bench dedicated to Shepard, it was a timely reminder that this was about a young person murdered for simply being himself.

She says documentary/verbatim theatre creates more immediate, authentic performances and opens the way for reflection, discussion and change.

"I see this is something I can do to make a difference."

Because of the work she did with Tectonic, McGill was granted exclusive performance rights for a New Zealand production of TPL:10. It premiered at Bats Theatre in Wellington in March and now comes to Auckland with four new cast members - Sophie Roberts, Shadon Meredith, Renee Lyons and Sophie Hambleton join Leon Wadham, Martyn Wood and Simon Kevin Leary to play roles which range from police to priests, mothers and criminals.

Wadham, who most recently appeared in Tribes for Silo Theatre, says McGill's knowledge of the work and her passion for it, coupled with the events it is based on, makes it all the more affecting. He says portraying one of the murderers has taught him not to make assumptions about those involved.

"When you spend time with them, they become human beings, not just names, and you start to think about what has happened to them since and what their stories are. We are working with a written text, but these aren't just words on a page, as they came from real people who are still around."

Where & When: Basement Theatre, August 28-September 8

- NZ Herald

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