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'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

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'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

Arts & Life

'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

'Ten Years Later,' The Matthew Shepard Story Retold

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The Laramie Project, about Matthew Shepard and how his murder affected both his Wyoming town and the national discourse on hate crimes, has been produced by theaters large and small. Here, cast members John McAdams (from left), Barbara Pitts, Greg Pierotti and Mercedes Herrero perform in the 2001 West Coast premiere production of The Laramie Project at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Ken Friedman/Tectonic Theater Project hide caption

toggle caption Ken Friedman/Tectonic Theater Project

The Laramie Project, about Matthew Shepard and how his murder affected both his Wyoming town and the national discourse on hate crimes, has been produced by theaters large and small. Here, cast members John McAdams (from left), Barbara Pitts, Greg Pierotti and Mercedes Herrero perform in the 2001 West Coast premiere production of The Laramie Project at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Ken Friedman/Tectonic Theater Project

The Laramie Project — one of the most-performed plays of the last decade — is based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, the young man who, in October 1998, was savagely beaten and left to die in Laramie, Wyo. Almost instantly, Shepard's name became a kind of grim rallying cry for those drawing attention to hate crimes committed against gays.

Now there's an epilogue to The Laramie Project, and tonight more than a hundred theaters around the country will perform readings of the new play. Together with the first one, it constitutes a powerful version of Matthew Shepard's story.

But it's not the only version — and that's a big part of why the epilogue exists.

Listening To Stories, And Hearing Multitudes Within

Playwright Moises Kaufman, who led the team of theater-collective collaborators who created The Laramie Project, is fascinated by stories — how we tell them, how we respond to them, how we use them.

Moises Kaufman, founder of the Tectonic Theater Project, wanted to write an epilogue to The Laramie Project in part because of continued debate over whether Shepard was killed because he was gay, or for some other reason. Ken Friedman/Tectonic Theater Project hide caption

toggle caption Ken Friedman/Tectonic Theater Project

Moises Kaufman, founder of the Tectonic Theater Project, wanted to write an epilogue to The Laramie Project in part because of continued debate over whether Shepard was killed because he was gay, or for some other reason.

Ken Friedman/Tectonic Theater Project

"We tend to think of story, and history specifically, as one thing," says Kaufman. "But the most exciting narratives are the ones that combine many different points of view, and many different people who tell it."

To tell Matthew Shepard's story, Kaufman and the members of his Tectonic Theater Project relied on more than 200 interviews that they conducted in Laramie shortly after Shepard's murder.

The result was the play (later made into an HBO feature film) called The Laramie Project; it blends performances of many of those interviews with a re-enactment of parts of the trials of Shepard's killers.

Among the people that the Tectonic corps interviewed were investigators, ranchers, clergymen and Shepard's friends. They talked to the bartender at the Fireside Lounge, where Shepard and his killers were seen the night he was beaten; one of Shepard's teachers at the University of Wyoming; the policewoman who was called to the crime scene where Shepard, brutally beaten, lay on the ground tied to a fence; the lead investigator on the case; and a professor who followed the trials of Shepard's killers. "When they used gay panic as a defense," she told Tectonic Theater, "I said 'This is good.' Because if nothing else, the truth is going to come out."

For Shepard's mother, The Laramie Project has not only kept her son's story alive, it has educated "the participants as well as the audience about what bigotry lies within us all," Judy Shepard says. "In every community, not just Laramie."

A Story Retold — And The Retelling Rebutted

Video: From 'The Laramie Project'

'The Trial Of Aaron McKinney'

Matthew Shepard's savage killing was used to strengthen the argument for hate-crimes legislation. But meanwhile, another version of his story was gathering steam.

Six years after the crime, the ABC newsmagazine 20/20 set out to debunk the idea that Shepard was murdered because he was gay. Like The Laramie Project, the one-hour episode included interviews with Shepard's friends, as well as investigators assigned to the case. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas interviewed Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russ Henderson, both serving life sentences.

Shepard, 20/20 reported, may have used methamphetamine. The report said that McKinney had been a dealer. "Meth is what made the world go around in Laramie," a friend of McKinney's and a former dealer told Vargas.

Audio Extra

Moises Kaufman On How The 'Laramie Project' Research Trips Were Funded

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20/20 also reported that McKinney and Henderson had been on a meth binge in the days before meeting Shepard. And prosecutor Cal Rerucha told 20/20 that "the methamphetamine just fueled this point where there was no control. So, it was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. But it was a murder that was driven by drugs."

Playwright Moises Kaufman believes the 20/20 story was "terrible journalism" that "changed the nature of the dialogue." So one of his goals with the new Laramie Project epilogue was to debunk the 20/20 story.

Kaufman and his Tectonic colleagues went back to Laramie last year, re-interviewing many of the people they'd met a decade ago — as well as talking to some new sources.

Actors gathered at the University of Maryland on Sept. 20 to rehearse for a staged reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. More than 100 theaters in the U.S. — and around the world — will stage the epilogue on Oct. 12, the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death. Gene Carl Feldman hide caption

toggle caption Gene Carl Feldman

Actors gathered at the University of Maryland on Sept. 20 to rehearse for a staged reading of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later. More than 100 theaters in the U.S. — and around the world — will stage the epilogue on Oct. 12, the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death.

Gene Carl Feldman

"One of the things we do in the play," says Kaufman, "is we go back and ask investigators ... and we go back over trial transcripts, and we prove that it was a hate crime."

The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later includes the comments of Rob Debree from the Albany County Sheriff's Office in Laramie.

"We've proven that there were no drugs on board with McKinney and Henderson — just none," Debree declares. And what about the claim that Shepard's murder was a robbery and drug deal gone bad? "That's some kind of massive denial," one openly gay Laramie resident tells Tectonic Theater.

Laramie police commander Dave O'Malley, who also appears in the 20/20 episode, says: "It angered me more than anything the things [ABC] didn't say — the things they left out."

In The Middle, Room For A Blend Of Both Explanations

There is yet a third way to look at the Matthew Shepard story.

Journalist JoAnn Wypijewski wrote an extensive article (read an excerpt) for Harper's magazine in 1999. She thinks the truth lies where the two versions overlap.

"Of course it had to do with homophobia. Of course it had to do with drugs. Of course it had to do with violence in the culture," Wypijewski says.

She says she has problems with The Laramie Project and with the 20/20 report. Both offer too narrow an explanation for why Shepard was killed, she contends.

"If you say 'It's just about hate,' or 'It's just about drugs,' you so simplify the story," Wypijewski says. "It's not either-or."

Wypijewski thinks the oversimplifications began as soon as Matthew Shepard was held up as an emblem for hate crimes.

"Emblematic stories need emblematic victims," maintains Wypijewski. "So Matthew needed to be an emblematic victim. And as soon as you have to do that, you start creating a kind of myth."

Kaufman knows very well that which story you tell — and which story you choose to believe — depend a lot on your own agenda.

"Stories are malleable," he says. "History is malleable. And so we have to be doubly vigilant when we listen to history and we listen to stories."

On Oct. 12, 2009 — 11 years to the day after Matthew Shepard's death — his story will be told again by Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company, in more than a hundred theaters around the country.

Excerpt: 'A Boy's Life'

History is one long quest for relief through chemicals, more powerful substitutes for endorphins, released when you cry so hard you run out of tears. But it is difficult to imagine a more unappetizing recipe for relief than methamphetamine. It is made from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, extracted from over-the-counter cold and asthma medicines, then cooked up with any of a variety of agents — lye, battery acid, iodine, lantern fuel, antifreeze. A former user says it tastes like fake crab "sea legs" marinated in cat piss, but its medicinal benefits, especially for its large constituency of construction workers, is that" nothing hurts anymore; you're wide awake; you seem to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. Only later do you understand that you've been up for two days" — and that, depending on how much you smoke or snort or shoot, euphoria morphs into hallucination, which morphs into paranoia, which morphs into God knows what.

According to the state's Methamphetamine Initiative, Wyoming's eighth-graders use meth at a higher rate than twelfth-graders nationwide, and among juvenile offenders in its correctional institutions in 1997 at least 50 percent had a history of meth use. Albany County is not one of the state's top three target zones, but drug sources in Laramie volunteer that meth is everywhere. Maybe McKinney is lying and maybe he's not when he says Shepard "mouthed off," prompting him to the fatal frenzy of violence, but one crank head told me that he once almost wasted someone just for saying hi — "You're so paranoid, you think, 'Why is he saying hi?' Does he know something? Is he a cop?"'And maybe all the meth users I met were lying or wrong or putting me on in saying they immediately took the murder for a meth crime because it was all too stupid and, except for one heinous detail, all too recognizable.

None of this is a defense for what happened, but it all complicates the singular picture of hate crime. Why did they kill him? "That was the meth talking," I was told. But why did they pick on him to begin with? "Because he was a fag." So why do you think they didn't kill him because he was gay? "They were regular guys, and then they beat up the Mexicans." And, anyway, "what kind of a man beats the shit out of a wussy guy?"

Ask around for impressions of Matthew Shepard and you find as many characters as there are speakers: a charming boy, always smiling and happy; a suicidal depressive who mixed street drugs and alcohol with Effexor and Klonopin; a good listener who treated everyone with respect; "a pompous, arrogant little dick" who condescended to those who served him; a bright kid who wanted to change the world; a kid you'd swear was mentally defective; a generous person; a flasher of money; a good tipper; a lousy tipper; a sexual seeker; a naif; a man freaked by his HIV status or at peace with it; a "counterphobic" who courted risk rather than live in fear; a boy who, his father said, "liked to compete against himself," entering races he couldn't win and swimming contests he'd finish "dead last by the length of the pool" just to prove he could do it; a boy never quite sure of his father's approval; a gay man; a faggot; a human being. Anyone of those Matthew Shepards could have been set up for death; the only constant is that he'd still be dead, and McKinney and Henderson would still be responsible. Gay men are killed horribly everywhere in this country, more than thirty just since Shepard — one of them, in Richmond, Virginia, beheaded. Gay and straight, male and female, some 40,000 individuals have been murdered since Shepard; the only constant is that they are dead, and that most of their killers are straight and most of them are men.

Among those who advocate hate-crime laws, it's always the sexuality of the victim that's front and center, not the sexuality of the criminal or the everyday, undifferentiated violence he took to extremity. Among the tolerance peddlers, it's always the "lifestyle" of the gay guy, never the "lifestyle" of the straight guy or the culture of compulsory heterosexuality. Even among those who argue that the victim's sexuality is irrelevant — that Shepard died just because a robbery went bad, or just because McKinney and Henderson were crazy on crank — the suggestion is that the crime is somehow less awful once homophobia is removed, and what is brewing inside the boys bears less attention. "The news has already taken this up and blew it totally out of proportion because it involved a homosexual," McKinney's father told the press.

Eighteen blows with a .357 magnum—murder happens.

Excerpted from "A Boy's Life: For Matthew Shepard's killers, what does it take to pass as a man?" originally published in Harper's magazine, September 1999. Used by permission.

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