Thacher’s 2018 fall play, The Laramie Project, was the devastating retelling of Matthew Shepard’s killing in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. Written by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project, the play is comprised of interviews with residents of Laramie that focus on their views regarding the attack on Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, and their beliefs about the town’s reputation and ability to change.
The Thacher Masquers’ rendition of the piece evoked emotional responses from audiences during the preview and two performances given for the School where viewers sat on the stage of the Milligan Center, mimicking a black box theatre. With seats surrounding three sides of the stage, the actors often spoke directly to the audience, standing as close as three feet from listeners. The intimacy of this manufactured venue and the limited seating, as only 109 chairs could fit on the stage, provided a platform for a closer connection between actor and audience member than can be achieved with the Milligan Center’s usual seating. James Langan, a member of the company, commented, “A lot of [audience members] would look away when I looked straight at them in the eyes…being able to see the physical discomfort of people made me realize how poignant the show’s message is.” The actors also experienced the emotional depth of the show, which Langan said was evidenced by the cast party on closing night: “Instead of celebrating the end it was more like celebrating a sense of self-discovery.” The sense of connection to the material, however, took the majority of the fall term to evolve into the final product.
Throughout the two month rehearsal period, actors focused on developing their individual characters, and director Tracey Williams Sutton emphasized the need for each member to have a personal history before discussing the roles as a company. Because each cast member played multiple roles, they had to invent methods to distinguish between their characters, and Langan said that he employed quirks to give himself a unique portrayal of each role. During the final week of rehearsals, Langan recounted that Ms. Sutton and technical director Cal Jensen told the cast that “the most important thing was for us to be as emotionally sincere as possible,” given that each character was a real person from the town of Laramie with authentic emotions and views.
The Laramie Project contains slurs and insults directed at the LGBTQ community that the Thacher Masquers used in its production. The slurs remained a part of the show because the goal of the piece was to acknowledge the crime that had taken place and the genuine feelings of the residents of Laramie about Matthew Shepard’s murder. Because some characters shared homophobic opinions, the cast had to work to understand how to portray characters whose beliefs contrasted harshly with their own. One cast member, Joy Mathebula, commented on how the slurs were “associated with violence” for her. She also noted, “We had to reconcile with whether [saying the slurs] was worth it, and I guess with the message of the play and the way it was intended to go off it was.”
The Laramie Project provoked discussions of the emotion and tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s death and the thoughtful portrayal of the interviews with Laramie citizens in the Milligan Center. Langan said he was “was forced to think about real life and how marginalization deeply affects our country” in contrast to his roles the comedic predecessors of this fall play. The Laramie Project inspired a thoughtful and somber tone that allowed the audience and cast alike to think deeply about our nation’s values and empathize with Laramie residents through their words.