As we examine the legacy of Matthew Shepard, it is clear that The Laramie Project has played a vital role in educating communities about Matt’s story, while affording people an opportunity to discuss the play and its messages, the hate they encounter in their own lives, and how they can work collectively to build a more understanding and compassionate community.
We recently sat down with one of the original members of Tectonic Theater Project, Greg Pierotti, to discuss his experience of researching and co-writing the play almost 25 years ago. He reflected on the impact Matthew has had on his life, as he prepares to direct the play this fall as a professor in the Theater Studies Department at the University of Arizona.
MSF: When and how did you first learn about Matthew Shepard?
Greg: I was introduced to Matthew’s story at the same time as most of America, while he was still in Fort Collins, CO at Poudre Valley Hospital. While the country waited to see what would happen to the young, gay college student, I participated in one of the first protests in New York City, which they then referred to as a “political funeral.”
At the same time, Tectonic Theater Project was ending our two-year run of the play Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, and conversations had begun regarding what our next play would be. As you can imagine, the entire company was shaken by what had happened to Matt, and our founder and artistic director, Moisés Kaufman, proposed that we explore this story in the same way we had with Gross Indecency.
MSF: What was your primary role(s) in developing and producing The Laramie Project?
Greg: As principal investigators, Leigh Fondakowski and I were tasked with traveling to Laramie, WY ahead of the rest of the company to strategize how to take on the incredible task of interviewing people in the town. I was particularly interested in speaking to Matt’s friends and other queer-identifying people in Laramie, law enforcement, and the various religious communities represented throughout the town.
We used a writing method we created called “moment work” to engage the non-theatrical source materials (trial transcripts, interviews, media stories, etc.) to create theater pieces. Upon completion, we presented our pieces to a variety of amazing New York theater artists, including Tony Kushner. I remember the response to the reading being so positive because of the power of Matt’s story. We immediately decided that this play had to happen!
MSF: What do you remember most about being part of the original production in 2000?
Greg: The first trip with Leigh as we drove from Denver to Laramie. I remember the experiential moment of crossing the Lincoln Pass from Cheyenne and the weight and intensity that came over us as the town of Laramie came into view. It was in that moment that the importance of this project became clear. And an intimidating fear of the town the media had coined “the hate crime capital of the world” suddenly became apparent in such a profound way.
MSF: Society has changed so much in 25 years—what type of reactions did you get at the time from those in your community when they learned of the production?
Greg: People were familiar with the work of the Tectonic Theater Project and the overall success and impact of Gross Indecency, but the response to The Laramie Project was different. Many people in the gay community didn’t initially want to see the play or engage in the story because they were literally scared and overwhelmed by what happened to Matthew. They truly identified with the struggle of not being safe in America, which is what makes his story so important.
Eventually, people moved past that fear, realizing that Matt’s story is a critical part of queer history, and they are often pleasantly surprised that there is so much more to the play than just the horrific crime. And even though the play is also funny and full of human dignity, with complicated characters who exhibit a range of emotions that transcend their own limited belief systems, the crime is still emblematic of the hostility and aggression that has been and continues to be directed towards queer people.
MSF: How did The Laramie Project impact your life or change your perspective?
Greg: No one has changed my life more than Matthew Shepard. His tragic death didn’t necessarily change my perspective, but instead brought to the forefront a level of frustration, outrage, and indignation that became a much more conscious part of my life. Before Matt, I didn’t feel the necessity to express my outrage about the reality of being a queer person in America. But this experience changed my relationship with my outward facing queerness, particularly in relation to my career in the often homophobic and transphobic theater industry.
MSF: What does it mean to you to produce The Laramie Project this year, to commemorate 25 years of Matthew’s legacy?
Greg: The 25th commemoration of the Foundation is a major milestone moment in Matthew’s story, and I’m grateful to be part of that. And it’s ironic that I proposed producing the play over a year ago, and since getting the green light, the necessity to tell this story has become even more pertinent. I can’t speak for the University, of course, but like many others, I’m shocked by the legislative attacks taking place across the country that are making direct legal assaults on the dignity of LGBTQIA+ people.
Honestly, after the passing of the Shepard-Byrd Act and the Obergefell decision, there was a sense that the country had moved into a new type of relationship with the queer community. But in this time of anti-LGBT legislation, the voice of the play is even more important than it has been in recent years.
My hope is that after seeing the show, people understand that regardless of how you feel or what you believe about those who are different from you, the choice is clear – you can either affirm everyone’s human dignity or choose to do things that assault that dignity. This is one of the things I love about this play – the characters who “disagree” with homosexuality, to recognize that what happened to Matthew was profoundly unjust and inhumane and to choose to stand up with courage against hate and defend Matt’s, and all queer people’s, basic dignity and worth even if they don’t agree with or understand it.
MSF: What do you believe are the major differences and/or similarities between your experience 23 years ago and the experience of your student actors today?
Greg: I’m grateful that my students can perform The Laramie Project because in this highly unstable and uncertain industry, this play is not simply about making moves professionally. Instead, this play is about being part of a community that cares about people and sharing Matthew’s story with others who care about people. This is truly theater on a spiritual level, and young actors really resonate with the idea that the theater can make this type of impact.
In addition, because of stonewall, gay pride, AIDS activism, the Shepard-Byrd Act, the Obergefell ruling, and shifts in popular culture, I think young queer students are beginning their work on the play with less cynicism and are able to use this experience as a reframing of today’s legislative assaults on the LGBTQ+ community. I see it as more of a wake-up call for them, whereas for me, it was more of a rallying cry.
MSF: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Greg: I’m so grateful to Matthew Shepard for his impact on my life. And I’m so grateful to Judy and Dennis Shepard for being an example of taking deep pain and turning it into action and forward movement. And I’m so grateful to the Foundation for all the work that has been accomplished in Matt’s name.