In the aftermath of the 1998 hate crime murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, the Tectonic Theatre Project conducted interviews with more than 200 Wyoming residents for “The Laramie Project.” The docu-drama that resulted will open the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s fall season on Oct. 8 at the Nafe Katter Theatre.
“The Laramie Project” focuses on residents’ reactions to the death of Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, who was left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. In the years since, the play has become an educational tool to discuss prejudice and tolerance in schools, as LGBT anti-discrimination bills are increasingly being signed into law across the United States.
“The play is still relevant,” says Brandy Burre, the actress best known for her role as Theresa D’Agostino on HBO’s “The Wire,” who stars in the CRT production. “It speaks volumes to our society and how little we have changed and how much more could be changed. The Matthew Shepard case had a huge impact on my life. I was friends with a lot of gay people at the time who were just coming out. It was a whole different world.”
The play, written by Moisés Kaufman, is based on interviews conducted by members of the Tectonic Theatre Project. There are more than 60 characters portrayed in three acts, in a series of short scenes.
Burre and Josh Aaron McCabe, a 10-year veteran of the Tony-Award winning regional theater Shakespeare & Co., lead a cast of 11 undergraduate and graduate actors in the School of Fine Arts who portray multiple characters in the Laramie community, presenting a challenge for everyone on stage.
“In a piece like this, we capture moments that are happening all over the place. Literally you’re flipping through this photo album and we have to switch photos this moment quickly, not always in sequence,” says McCabe. “I might be playing a character, and switch a jacket or a hat and capture another moment with another character. I’m trying to find what is happening in this moment and where the language is taking me.”
Burre, who was the focus of the critically acclaimed documentary film “Actress,” says the wide range of characters and short scenes help to demonstrate the range of viewpoints within the college town where the incident occurred and the varied experiences of the individuals.
“In real time, it was the media and their spin on it and the reaction, both good and bad, from hate groups, from gay rights groups and others,” she says. “One of the characters says [to the Tectonic members], ‘I will trust that if you write a play of this, that you say it right. You need to do your best to say it correct.’ I think the theater company had a huge responsibility. They had multiple points of view. They had to honor many characters. To tell it correctly they had to have a lot of people’s point of view, because so many people saw it differently from their experience.”
The CRT production is directed by CRT artistic director Vincent J. Cardinal, who is also head of the Department of Dramatic Arts. “The Laramie Project” is serving as a reunion of sorts for Burre and McCabe, who both were students at the Ohio University School of Theatre when Cardinal was School director before coming to UConn.
There will be a reading of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” which includes re-interviews with subjects from the original play, on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the Nafe Katter Theatre.
“The Laramie Project” runs from Oct. 8 to 18 at the Nafe Katter Theatre. For more information go to the Connecticut Repertory Theatre website.