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Theatre department to present Laramie Project Project

Photo by Sofia Mendez
Photo by Sofia Mendez
Photo by Sofia Mendez

Jon Sundby

18 years ago today, Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old gay man, was found tied to a fencepost, bloody and comatose, outside the town of Laramie, Wisc. Having simply accepted an offer for a ride back to his apartment from a bar the previous night, Shepard was instead robbed, beaten, tortured and left for dead in the Wyoming countryside. The gruesome incident provoked a fierce national and international reaction, and soon, much of the world knew of Shepard’s story. And almost two decades later, his name is still not forgotten, having in death become the focus of the famous play, “The Laramie Project.” Shepard’s story will be told once more this weekend, in Flanagan Theater, through an adapted play by Grinnell’s own Craig Quintero, Theatre and Dance.

Quintero’s production is entitled “The Laramie Project Project”, and is a slimmed-down, refocused version of the original play. Moises Kaufman’s initial script is comprised of a series of monologues, based off of hundreds of interviews his theatre company conducted with residents of Laramie following Shepard’s murder. While the driver of the plot is Shepard, Kaufman strays from a straight telling of the story, and part of the play is actually a reflection on the project itself and the process of researching, writing and creating the production. Although Quintero recognizes the merits of this approach, he’s reformatted his own script to focus more on Shepard himself, and the lessons we can find in his tragedy.

“I wanted to have the focus on Matthew. I didn’t want it to be about writing a play, I didn’t want it to be about navel-gazing and ‘me as the author and creator.’ I think that these are important questions to ask, but I think that being more direct and dealing with how we, as an American culture, view homosexuality, how we view religion and faith…and to make that the focal point,” Quintero said.

It’s not only Quintero’s script, but his setting too, that is stripped down and minimalist. Held in the small, black box Flanagan Theater, Quintero worked with artist Josh Black to create a set that’s completely surrounded in plywood, and brings the actors, the crew and the audience into an intimate proximity.

“We wanted something really stark and simple. Something that could create a mood, but also was really just more of a frame for the performers to perform,” explained Quintero.

The performance is entirely monologue, a dramatic departure from Quintero’s other work, which is usually image-based and sparse in regards to lengthy dialogue. Yet, in this piece too, Quintero is trying to create something beyond the words. Through the starkness of the set and production, the loneliness of Shepard’s situation and the pain of the townsfolk are transmitted to the audience and a somber, contemplative spirit emerges. Although incredibly powerful, this style of performance is not easy, and the actors had to work a lot to refine their impressions.

“[Quintero]’s not a straightforward director. So it’s a lot of experimentation. It’s a lot of thinking about images and movement and really getting to the heart of the piece…everything that we do, the objective is to make it as real as possible,” said Lauren Fenton ’17, who plays multiple roles in the production.

Even though we live in an age now that’s arguably more accepting of the LGBTQIA community than in Shepard’s time, Quintero still believes that showing the play now is as important as ever. He sees the anger and fear that’s swept through the country on the back of Donald Trump’s rhetoric as a frightening stumble back towards the same attitudes that were responsible for Shepard’s death. He hopes that the audience will come out of the performance ready to reflect on this anger and the attitudes that collectively can lead to tragic outcomes.

“We like to think of the Laramie project as this historical drama, as an event that happened 17-18 years ago, but … we’re still in the same boat. That violence, that tension is [still] simmering,” said Quintero.

Tickets for the Laramie Project Project are available in the box office in Bucksbaum. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m..

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