On the 13th anniversary of a horrific murder in Laramie, Wyo., Montana Actors’ Theatre is quietly rehearsing a play examining the impacts of the hate crime that left a 21-year-old gay man dead.
The local acting troupe next week begins its production of “The Laramie Project, ” a play created by the Tectonic Theater Project and written by Moisés Kaufman about what happened in the year following Matthew Shepard’s murder.
“It’s compelling and it’s intriguing, the way the story is told through the words of the people who were there, ” said MAT Artistic Director Jay Pyette, one of the six actors in the play, directed by Dana Pyette.
“It’s still very important, ” Jay Pyette added. “It’s absolutely still a timely issue. ”
Shepard was born in Casper, Wyo., Dec. 1, 1976. According to the website of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, created by his parents after his death, he attended public schools until his junior year, when his family moved to Saudi Arabia.
After returning to the United States, Shepard enrolled in the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he studied political science, foreign relations and languages.
Oct. 7, 1998, shortly after midnight, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson took Shepard to a remote area east of Laramie, tied him to a split-rail fence, beat him, robbed him and left him to die.
He was found 18 hours later, but died in a hospital Oct. 12, 1998.
McKinney and Henderson are serving life sentences for the murder.
The murder raised a horrified outcry around the country, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation was created by his parents “to ‘Replace Hate with Understanding, Compassion & Acceptance’ through its varied educational, outreach and advocacy programs and by continuing to tell Matthew’s story, ” its website says.
The mission of the foundation is to “encourage respect for human dignity and difference by raising awareness, opening dialogues, and promoting positive change. ”
Five weeks after Shepard’s death, the Tectonic Theater Project, a dramatic production company founded in 1991 by Kaufman and Jeffrey LaHost, sent a team headed by Kaufman to interview people in the city of Laramie. Over the next year, more than 200 residents were interviewed about the impacts of the murder, and how life was progressing in Laramie after it occurred.
Pyette said the play is presented in a rather unique fashion, with six actors playing more than 70 roles, with most of the play retelling interviews and presented as monologues.
“It’s totally cool for an audience to see, ” he said.
In the play, Shepard never is seen.
“The story is basically from the time of the incident, from that time forward, ” Pyette said. “As an audience, we will never meet him. ”
He said acting in the play has been a very unique experience for him, even with his decades of experience in studying drama, acting and directing.
”It’s probably been one of the most different experiences I’ve ever had in the theater, for its style and content, ” he said.
The topic of the play causes some people to have apprehension, he added.
“A lot of people really have no idea what it’s all about, ” Pyette said.
The play is scheduled to start in the Little Theatre in Cowan Hall at the Montana State University-Northern campus at 8 p. m. each night, with the backstage bar opening at 7:30 p. m.
The run dates for the play are Friday and Saturday of next week, Oct. 21-22, and Oct. 27-29 and Nov. 3-5.