It’s rare for a theatrical production to bring an audience directly into its world, but in UVU’s production of The Laramie Project, directed by Laurie Harrop-Purser, audiences were placed directly in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder in 1998.
The result was a meaningful and moving production that asked its audience tough but necessary questions.
The script for Laramie is built entirely from first-hand accounts, interviews, and recordings gathered by the Tectonic Theatre Project. Under the direction of Laurie Harrop-Purser, each of the ten actors on stage portrayed multiple characters including average citizens, religious leaders, members of the theatre company and Matthew’s friends and family.
The production was set up as “promenade theatre,” meaning that the audience traveled around the theatre and interacted with the actors at certain points. Different areas represented a church, a bar and other areas of the town. Production designer Emma Belnap and set designer Janice Chan orchestrated this in a way that seemingly transported the audience to another place, using lighting and simple set pieces to convey new locales.
In one particularly harrowing sequence, the audience was directly in the middle of a Westboro Baptist Church protest. The scene was only seconds long, but many people in the audience were visibly affected. In a more uplifting scene, the audience created a tag at the end of a parade, standing behind the characters as they marched in solidarity with Shepard.
The use of immersive theatre made it impossible to watch the play passively. By putting the audience quite literally in the world of the play, the show asked those who saw it to contemplate their own feelings and prejudices about members of the LGBTQ community. It was as though they, too, were residents of Laramie, examining themselves as the town did.
One of the standout performances was Kyle Baugh’s, who played a Baptist minister, a friendly limo driver and, most powerfully, Matthew’s father. His speech directed toward his son’s killer was heartbreaking and moving. Kim Abunuwara played Catherine Connelly, a college professor who is also a lesbian. Catherine represented the members of the LGBTQ community who were weighed down by the fear that they could be the next victim in the wake of Matthew’s attack.
One of the most relatable characters was Jedadiah Schultz, a college student played by Tristin Smith. Watching his growth throughout the play, it was encouraging to think that people like him—well-meaning and kind, but misinformed—could change. A minor but memorable role was Doug Laws, played by Matthew Herrick. One of the several Mormon characters in the play, this stake ecclesiastical leader delivers a short but firm statement on the Mormon church’s stance on homosexuality and the family, holding a mirror to the community surrounding this production.
In a pamphlet accompanying the show, dramaturg Matt Oviatt stressed that the aim of the production was not to tell the audience what experience to have.
“[It] is our goal to offer you the choice of seeing things from a different perspective. I hope you can consider […] ways you can create space for people who are different from you,” Oviatt said.
If you missed The Laramie Project, you can learn more about the show and Shepard’s legacy at MatthewShepard.org.
The original version of this story failed to acknowledge the director, scenic designer, and production designer of the play. The UVU Review apologizes for the oversight.
Olivia is a theater education major who stumbled into journalism. She’s a little too into movies, pop culture, and Oxford commas (against the desires of her editors). She is also very online. ([email protected])