Spotlight on prejudice
It's hard-hitting theatre. The Laramie Project acts out a true story of small-town prejudice and is performed by a Palmerston North theatre company who tells it as it is. Carly Thomas speaks to Skin Theatre about passion, hate, and truth, and why this story needs to be heard.
Skin Theatre is not just a theatre company that sets out to entertain; it is a group of actors - men, women, friends - who have a shared passion towards a common vision to challenge prejudice, confront the ugly and make their audience think. The Laramie Project is their latest offering, a play with a far-reaching message that the theatre company has taken a firm hold of and is extending to a Palmerston North audience.
The play is not your usual and the plot demands a response. The story is true, drawing on hundreds of interviews conducted by the play's founding theatre company, the Tectonic Theatre Project, in the American small town of Laramie. The plot is driven by these testimonies and organised in a way that presents a creative narrative, a reaction to the most notorious anti-gay crime in American history.
Matthew Shephard, an openly gay University of Wyoming student, was murdered in October, 1998. Abducted, Shephard was driven to a remote area of East Laramie, Wyoming. He was tied to a split rail fence, severely assaulted and left to die. He was found more than a day later by a cyclist who at first mistook him for a scarecrow.
Shephard's funeral was attended by friends and family from around the world. It also gained massive media attention and became a catalyst for revealing a culture of hate. A federal law change against hate crimes directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people was a result, as was The Laramie Project, which revealed the deep ruptures in people's attitudes towards gay people. Interviews, news reports, courtroom transcripts, and journal entries amount to a play that spells out the varied and at times hateful perspectives of a small town.
The play has also been made into a film and a book and a companion play entitled The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later has been made.
Actor and co-producer Maree Gibson says it was a story that needed to be told - challenging, controversial and taboo.
"While this play is set in Laramie, it could be anywhere. I have met many of the characters in one form or another right here in New Zealand. I have always been perplexed and angered by the prejudice I have seen towards homosexuality throughout my life."
Director Kelly Harris says that violence and hate crimes happen in Palmerston North and that it often comes back to the attitude of "if we don't like or understand something, we turn to violence".
"We use expressions that are derogatory to gay people all the time, so many negatives. Everyone is guilty of it and we are all products of our society. Gay people are often incredibly private; they are pushed to the edge where things are safe for them. People claim to be accepting, but are they really?"
The cast of 11 actors play more than 60 characters between them and Harris says the Skin Theatre founders (Harris, Gibson and Lana Sklenars) have brought in people they trust and they have a strong connection to the play.
"As a company, we are all connected because we desired an opportunity to express ourselves and be supported by other artists without judgment. We have all faced judgment at some point in our life. It is not always easy to feel accepted in society, nor is it easy to move on from tragedy. But maybe we can do it together."
Gibson says some of the cast are gay and some aren't, but everyone feels The Laramie Project is something that is necessary to communicate.
"For me it has been life-changing, a transformation. One of my parts is the Baptist minister and he is just pure evil. There is no variation, no deviation to his beliefs: ‘Matthew Shephard was a sinner'. He is revolting and at the same time delicious to play. With her directing, Kelly said we need to find something within our characters that we like and I guess for me the minister stays absolutely true. No wishy washy, the word is real or not and in a way I can respect that. These characters are real people and we honour that."
Gibson, Harris and Sklenars are longstanding friends and Skin Theatre has brought its plays - Macbeth, Dark Deeds and Shakespeare and the City - to Palmerston North, providing strong leadership and creative opportunities for local artists of all shapes, sizes and gender.
Harris, an accomplished director known for the connections she makes with actors and audiences, is backed by some experienced thespians. Hannah Pratt, Phillip Mills, Mark Kilsby and Gibson are in the cast along with some young talent, students that Harris has worked with in her role as a drama and English teacher at Feilding High School.
Creating original music for the play and acting in it as well is singer/songwriter Annie Webster, who says the message The Laramie Project delivers is huge.
"I have really connected with this play. For writing Matthew's song, I watched and really listened to the words of the play and started to get a feel for it. It was hard stuff to write. It gets a message across."
The hate that took Shephard's life spawned an activist movement that drew attention to the lack of hate crime laws in various states of America. It brought about law changes and The Matthew Shephard Foundation was begun, working to bring about change in civil rights for the gay community.
The crime against Shephard may have happened on American soil but Harris says the play deals with a universal issue that translates to the Palmerston North community.
"This play challenges the idea of ‘live and let live'. Are we turning a blind eye to violence and hate every time we misuse the word gay? To what extent are we pretending that we have evolved into an accepting culture? We come into this world with kindness in our hearts; why can't we leave it the same way?"
The Laramie Project opens at Palmerston North's Dark Room on August 21 and runs until August 30.