Have You Seen “The Laramie Project”

Our own Susan Burk, Laramie Project Specialist, works with productions all around the world. This week, we asked Susan to tell us about her work this past year.

From large, prestigious theatres to high school auditoriums and community stages, our Laramie Project Support program reached from coast to coast and overseas during 2013. The Laramie Projectand its epilogue, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later hold essential truths and emotional messages for audiences all over the world and are also being increasingly utilized in classrooms part of curriculum and one-book campus events. We have been working on new ways to support these efforts, including expanding online resources and utilizing video chat and social media to enhance the program and make it more easily accessible. From on-site visits and post-show talkbacks to research, resources, and Skype chats with cast members, we supported more than sixty productions and educational programs in 2013. Here are a few examples of our work this year:

The Laramie Cycle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: In January I traveled to Brooklyn, NY, with Judy Shepard to attend Tectonic Theatre Project’s production of The Laramie Cycle. Judy took part in a pre-show Artist Talk with playwright Moisés Kaufman. It was thrilling to meet with the cast and discuss combined efforts and collaboration with Tectonic.

Ford’s Theatre/Lincoln Legacy Project: Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., featured The Laramie Projec t for their Lincoln Legacy Project, a multi-year effort dedicated to sparking dialogue in the nation’s capital around issues of social injustice and the ideals of equality for which Abraham Lincoln stood. Dennis and Judy Shepard were honored at their Gala in June, and Judy was the featured speaker at a post-show discussion during one of the series of free special programs and events offered in connection with the play. Besides offering support, we helped with the creation of the moving exhibit Never Alone: The Power of Response featuring letters written to the Shepards after Matthew’s attack and death.

University of Michigan: The University’s prestigious School of Theatre and Dance, with Broadway and television actor Hank Stratton as Guest Director, produced The Laramie Project as well as a pre-show cabaret night fundraiser for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, also helping to raise awareness of the Foundation and our work. It was a pleasure to exchange resource, ideas, and philosophy with those involved in this production.

Williston Northampton School in East Hampton, MA: Director Emily Ditkovski created a comprehensive education and awareness plan in conjunction with the play. In her words, “The main goal for all the workshops is to put something tangible in place for the students when the workshop is over… all of the workshops involve this idea of learning to listen, and that being the seed that starts to erode hatred.” Workshop topics included the roles of community, faith and religion, the arts, class divisions and inequity, and more in issues including hate crimes and homophobia.

Stage Center at Bryan/College Station, TX : Director Bryan Coogler says he created his production in part because of a climate of intolerance in the area, including events at Texas A&M University, which is ranked among the top 20 “Least LBGT-Friendly Colleges” according to the Princeton Review. In the spring of 2013, according to Insite Magazine, “The Texas A&M GLBT Center came under attack when a member of the Student Senate proposed S.B. 65-70: Religious Funding Exemption Bill, renamed from its original title of “GLBT Funding Opt-Out Bill.” While the final edition of the bill omitted any specific reference to the GLBT Resource Center, the proposed changes placed the center’s existence in jeopardy by offering students to opt-out of paying certain student fees on moral and religious grounds.” Although the bill passed the senate it was vetoed by the student body president. Coogler and his production sought to bring more understanding and awareness to the issues.

Fourth Universalist Society in New York City: Director Erin Bigelow directed The Laramie Project several years ago and decided to direct both plays together this year in Manhattan,  and generously donated all of the proceeds to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. As with the production at Stage Center and many others, we arranged a Skype session with this cast to answer questions and talk about the themes and issues of the show.

 LGBT Center in Los Angeles: Director Ken Sawyer and his talented cast at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center created a highly successful production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.  It was highly acclaimed by the area critics, as well as the audiences of the sold-out performances.

We provided media resources, archival documents, and historical context as well as serving as a resource and sounding board for director and cast members.

Ottumwa, Iowa: When school administrators cancelled plans for a production of The Laramie Project at Ottumwa High School, Drama Instructor Natalie Saunders and producer Dale Dommer created Theatre Adventures, and moved forward with the production in a different venue. The cast included dozens of high school students as well as members of the community. It was my pleasure to work with these two passionate people and their cast, and be able to facilitate a post-show community discussion on opening night.

Ole Miss: When a group of student audience members including members of the Ole Miss Football team heckled a group of actors onstage during a Laramie Project Production at the school it created national outrage and discussion.  Part of the heckling was reported to include homophobic slurs and hate speech. The Foundation and Judy Shepard were part of the response, contacting the cast members and drama department with our support and granting media interviews as the discussion moved across the country.

The Theatre School at DePaul: As news came in about the incident at Ole Miss, theatre instructor Carolyn Hoerdemann decided to toss out her plan for her non-majors performance class that day and engage them in a conversation about the event. By the end of the class they had created a petition on Change.org, and crafted an ambitious plan to do a reading of The Laramie Project coupled with a post-show discussion workshop that included various student groups from across the university. I helped facilitate the event as well as reading the role of Reggie Fluty. One of the Ole Miss cast members, Garrison Gibbons, was also at the event. Since then the group has created “Looped Together”, described as a Performance Activism Group for Social Justice.

We at the Matthew Shepard Foundation are proud to support The Laramie Project plays and their messages of how hate affects the lives of everyone, and to help create discussions on how to create a more civil, compassionate, and just world.


~Susan Burk
Laramie Project Specialist



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