The Laramie Project

When a small town comes face to face with murder, everyone has a story to tell.

At first glance, it’s the old story of a shocking event shattering a small town. Beneath the surface, though, it’s entirely different. Written by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project is a series of interviews with Laramie, Wyo., residents about their reactions to the hate crime that led to the death of Matthew Shepard.

The Tectonic Theater Project’s aim was to interview the inhabitants of Laramie in hopes of learning about the effects of Matthew Shepard’s death. What they found was a multifaceted town with over a hundred stories and many contradicting views. Was Laramie the type of place where one could freely live as he or she wanted, or one in which someone could only make his own lifestyle choices if he kept them secret? It depends on whom you talk to.

What makes this show unusual is that its 63 characters are played by only 13 actors, making it important for the actors to create clear distinctions between the different roles they play. In Scotch ’n’ Soda’s performance of The Laramie Project, the costume changes were minimal, such as the change of sophomore Kwasi Mensah’s plaid shirt to transform a townie into a Baptist minister. This was a challenge the actors met and surpassed — most evident in first-year Caulder Tempel’s effortless shift from a policeman to a somewhat stereotypical gay man to a Republican Senator and in first-year Andrew Stocchetti’s seamless transition from University of Wyoming president to remorseless murderer Aaron McKinney.

Each character was not only distinct, but memorable as well. The audience was scared for the lives of policewoman Reggie Fluty (junior Danielle Griswold) and professor Catherine Connelly (sophomore Sarah Barbour) and was delighted by the feisty attitude of Matthew’s friend, Romaine Patterson (first-year Rose Sengenberger). Particularly memorable was junior Gerrit Betz’s portrayal of Matthew’s father, which left everyone silent following his speech to McKinney. Sophomore Dave Lettieri’s flawless depiction of Fred Phelps was equally stunning.

Fred Phelps is the Baptist preacher who protested Shepard’s funeral and murder trial. He continues to speak at various events about the profound evil that he believes homosexuality to be, and there had been rumors that he would even follow The Laramie Project to Carnegie Mellon.

Director Courtney Kochuba, a junior English major who is also president of Scotch ’n’ Soda Theater, has been considering putting on The Laramie Project for some time now. A Pittsburgh native, she says that it has never been produced here and that it’s time for that to happen since hate crimes still occur. In fact, due to recent events such as a gay hate crime in Massachusetts and Fred Phelps’ protesting of Coretta Scott King’s funeral, this show is even more relevent.

Kochuba’s target audience is first and foremost Carnegie Mellon students. “Things get us riled up,” she said, such as Malik Zulu Shabazz’s controversial speech last year. “And when things get us riled up, we take the opportunity and do things. This is just to get the word out.” While she hopes that some students will become involved in activism, it is more important for Kochuba that the audience understands and respects the message conveyed by the show even though they may not agree with it.

Bringing this matter to the masses was a motive of author Kaufman. After the death of Matthew Shepard, he asked, “How can we, as theater people, respond to and comment on this situation? The members of the Tectonic Theater Project were not legislation-passing politicians. They were actors, and for them the best way to do this was through theater. While people may not necessarily attend an activist rally, they may go and see a show. A show is just another way to bring certain ideas to the masses.”

The process of bringing the town of Laramie to life was extremely rewarding for the cast and crew. Kochuba believes that what makes Laramie come alive is the enthusiasm that the cast brings to the table. With all the outside work that the cast is loaded with, one must be really passionate about the show in order to put such effort into it. Moments when an actor’s research resulted in a gold mine of information, including personal connections, were especially valued.

Assistant director Ashley Birt, a junior English major, regards The Laramie Project as one of the most important plays that can be performed right now. She said, “There is hate. It can happen anywhere — in a small town or even in Pittsburgh. But you must see how a community deals with this, how it affects people. There are both negative and positive results. It’s a sad thing that happened to this kid but it raised an enormous amount of awareness.”

Birt’s hope for the show is that it will make Carnegie Mellon think. Often many students here get so involved in their work that they do not know or care about what’s going on in the world around us. She said, “CMU students need to “realize that this is the real world. This is going on — so go out and change it ... or at least turn on CNN.”

According to Birt, “CMU needs this. CMU’s ready. It’s time for this.”