‘Laramie Project’ holds mirror to audience in immersive production

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The Bastian Theatre has been transformed into the town of Laramie, Wyo., in order to tell a timely small-town tragedy.

In the fall of 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old university student, was robbed, tied to a fence, beaten, and left for dead outside of Laramie. He was found 18 hours later and was rushed to a hospital. He died on October 12, 1998, five days later. The reason for this attack–Matthew Shepard was gay.

This hate crime sparked a worldwide outpouring of grief, and eventually grabbed the attention of the New York-based Tectonic Theatre Project. Led by Moisés Kaufman, the company travelled to Laramie in the aftermath of the attack. Over the course of two years, they interviewed over 200 individuals. Out of that experience, The Laramie Project was created– a portrait of a town forced to confront itself.

The 11 actors in the production portray over eighty characters, each a real person. The words and language used are all taken directly from interviews, press releases and recordings.

The audience is guided by the actors to different areas or “rooms” in the theatre, each representing a different area of the town. At times the audience is surrounded by the action, watching as the story unfolds around them.

According to director Laurie Harrop-Purser, the show almost didn’t happen at UVU.

“Because we did not think the new building was going to be ready in time, we were originally going to put this play in a museum and walk around to the different rooms,” Laurie Harrop-Purser said. “That venue fell through, but we really liked the idea and so we recreated it in the Bastian Theater.”

Harrop-Purser said this show was chosen for its relevance, even 20 years after it was written. (October 12, 2018 was the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death).

“There are so many young people who struggle with guilt and feeling ostracized because of same-sex attraction. And, particularly, this community and parents of those youth also struggle greatly with the topic,” Harrop-Purser said. “I want people who come to see this play to stop for a moment and see everyone as a person–those who live a gay lifestyle and those who struggle with accepting a gay lifestyle.”

As the show contains mature content and may be emotionally taxing for some audience members, counselors from UVU’s Health Services and Spectrum: Queer Student Alliance will be available during and after the show for those in need of their services.