Theatrical Tendencies returns to “Laramie,” 15 years after
A decade and a half after the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard, director Mark Schuster hopes to revive dialogue about how we handle crimes of hate, both then and now.
A lot can change in 15 years. Then again, a lot can stay the same, too. It’s a paradox firmly in the mind of Mark Schuster and Jacob Dougherty, as they work on their latest show for Milwaukee’s LGBT-themed theater company Theatrical Tendencies: The Laramie Project.
Schuster and Dougherty, the production’s director and stage manager (respectively), explain as we sit under the warm amber light they’re testing out for their Great Plains-themed set. The Laramie Project was assembled by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project in the aftermath of the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student whose murder was labeled a hate crime and ignited a media firestorm. For their work, the Tectonic Theater Project interviewed members of the Laramie community, capturing a wide variety of opinions and perspectives on the case.
Fifteen years later, things seem better, Schuster and Dougherty say – gay marriage is legal in more than a dozen states, and other equal rights movements are gaining momentum in states and communities across the country. Yet at the same time, similar attacks are still occurring even in the most seemingly liberal-minded places – off the top of his head, Schuster can recall the recent assault of a gay couple in New York City that occurred in broad daylight, with people all around recording video on their phones – and a production of The Laramie Project was derailed just this month at the University of Mississippi when a group of football players began shouting anti-gay slurs at the performers.
“Exactly what the show depicts is what was happening,” Schuster said. “This is why [Theatrical Tendencies] exists, because issues like this are still happening even in our ‘more enlightened’ era.”
This production marks a return to Laramie for Schuster, who directed the production five years ago for Soulstice Theatre (which, coincidentally, is the company whose space Tt will be using for the show, although Soulstice was elsewhere themselves in 2008). He says re-directing the show has come with a number of unexpected surprises though – mostly from characters he had previously written off in prior versions. One woman, who’d originally seemed to be just one negative voice out of many, now seems much more level-headed, Schuster says, and even anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps is understandable, although he still doesn’t agree with his beliefs.
“The play gives a balanced view; it’s not all positive perspectives,” Schuster said. “We let the audience make their own decisions about each character.”
And The Laramie Project has a lot of characters. Schuster’s cast of 10 will perform more than 80 roles, changing from one to the other with just the subtlest shift of mannerisms. But while the number of perspectives is large, the play’s direction is not scattered. “Most of these characters move along a spectrum over the course of the play,” Dougherty said. “They go on a journey, better understanding why they should accept and love others.”
And, he points out, it’s never a bad thing to revive the national conversation about this case, whether that be through their remounting of this play or a controversial new book.
“There’s more dialogue, but are people’s minds being changed?” Schuster said. “We would hope so.”
“And it’s a plus to have people still having conversations,” Dougherty said. “We would rather people have any opinion than none at all.”
Theatrical Tendencies will present The Laramie Project from October 11 to 26, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at Soulstice Theatre’s Tamsett Theatre, 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave. Tickets are $20, and can be purchased at Tt’s online box office.
Featured cast members include: Kevin J. Gadzalinski, Kristin Johnson, Danielle Levings, Donna L. Lobacz, Rachel McLafferty, Marty L. McNamee, Paul Pfannenstiel, Nathanael Press, Roger Rivas and Kath Vandenberg.