Revisiting the fence five years later

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— One voice is conspicuously missing from a play about Matthew Shepard's death -- Matthew's.

"My friends ask me who plays Matthew Shepard and I have to say no one. It's not about Matthew Shepard," actor Drew Lyon said. "It's about Laramie after his death."

"The Laramie Project" is the result of a journey made by the members of the Tectonic Theater Project who traveled to Laramie, Wyo., on Nov. 12, 1998, to interview people during the aftermath.

The wave of reporters had gone back to their newsrooms. The town was left more than a little dazed, and a lot of residents were struggling to hold on to its identity, newly redefined by the outside world as the place where a 105-pound, gay University of Wyoming student was tied to a cattle fence in the fields outside of town, beaten with fists and guns and left to die.

"If you would have asked me before, I would have told you, Laramie is a beautiful town, secluded enough that you can have your own identity ... A town with a personality most larger cities are stripped of," Jedadiah Schultz (played by Cory Antiel) said. "Now, after Matthew, I would say that Laramie is a town defined by an accident, a crime. We've become Waco, we've become Jasper. We're a noun, a definition, a sign. We may be able to get rid of that ... but it will sure take awhile."

"The Laramie Project" is more a piece of staged journalism than a piece of theater. It starts with the kind of small talk people roll through as they decide how much to trust their interviewer.

They talk about their town, their childhood. They brag about being third-, fourth-, fifth-generation residents of the area.

Welcome to Laramie. Population 26,687. A ranching and railroad town turned college town.

The theater company interviewed bartenders and store clerks, fellow students and taxi drivers. Everyone knew who Matthew was and a few knew him personally.

Taxi driver Doc O'Connor remembered picking him up one night:

"I pull up to the corner. It's a little guy, about 5-2, soakin' wet, I betcha 97 pounds tops. So he walks up to the window and he says, 'Yeah, I'm Matthew Shepard. But I don't want you to call me Matthew, or Mr. Shepard. My name is Matt. And I want you to know, I am gay and we're going to a gay bar. Do you have a problem with that?'

"The fact is, Laramie doesn't have any gay bars, so he was hiring me to take him down to Fort Collins, Colo., about an hour away."

Matthew's friends speculated on who he would have become if he hadn't died so young. Shepard was a political science major and told people he planned to dedicate his life to working on human rights.

The irony is that Shepard probably did more in death for gay rights in the West than he ever would have accomplished in life.

The fence where he was found has become a pilgrimage point.

The Tectonic Theater Project member Stephen Mead Johnson (played by Cory Antiel) visited the site several times during research.

"The fence -- I've been out there four times. I've taken visitors. ... Clearly that's a powerful personal experience to go out there. It is so stark and so empty, and you can't help but think of Matthew there for 18 hours in the nearly freezing temperatures, with that view up there, isolated, and the 'God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' comes to mind."

What happened at the fence started a lot of conversation about being gay in a small town, a dialogue that begins again every time a high school, college or theater company decides to stage "The Laramie Project" again.

Laramie resident Jonas Slonaker (played by Loren Cogswell) said, "When I came here I knew it was going to be hard as a gay man. But I kept telling myself, people should live where they want to live. And there would be times I would go down to Denver and I would go to gay bars. And I met so many men down there from Wyoming. Every once in a while there would be a guy, 'Oh gosh, I miss Laramie. I mean, I really love it there, that's where I want to live.' I mean, imagine if more gay people stayed in small towns. But it's easier said than done, of course."

Rehashing the Matthew Shepard murder and its effects on Laramie feels like reopening a wound that is almost healed.

But director David Baecker said "The Laramie Project" is important to stage because it is bigger than the event itself.

He related the Shepard murder to other big events such as the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"This is a play about how a big event can change our lives and how those events ripple through a town and change the whole community," Baecker said.

The play was exhausting for the cast. They met in one room and read through the script aloud.

"I cried a lot," Adam Nichols said.

"You detach after a while. A lot of us did," Marshall Pailet said. The cast practiced for three weeks, six days a week. Each actor juggled several parts, dividing 70 roles between 30 actors.

Throughout the play, a character named Jedadiah Schultz goes through a personal transformation.

"At first, he's against homosexuality," Antiel said. "By the end, he accepts it. I hope some people will take that journey. I'm sure hundreds have because of this play."

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