Matthew Shepard's story is well known. In 1998, the slight, blond, 21-year-old gay man visited the Fireside Lounge near Laramie, Wyoming, where he met two other men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. The three men eventually left the bar together. Shortly thereafter, McKinney and Henderson pistol-whipped Shepard, tied him to a fence, doused him with gasoline, set him on fire, and left him to burn in the cold. What happened in the aftermath was documented by the Tectonic Theatre Company in a living oral history called The Laramie Project. Ten years later, Tectonic returned to the scene of the crime and reinterviewed all the original subjects to create The Laramie Project 10 Years Later. This month, two of Memphis' most enduring independent theater companies are joining forces to make both works available to Memphis audiences in the same month.
"Raw" is the word Emerald Theatre Company (ETC) director Den-Nickolas Smith uses to describe the original Laramie Project. The community was still reeling, both from the murder and the notoriety it brought. "Even though we've made so much progress, it's important that we're reminded of this story," Smith says.
New Moon's director Gene Elliott describes 10 Years Later as a more reflective piece showing so many of the original players wondering how they ended up where they are. "It's interesting to see how attitudes have changed," Elliott says.
The unusual team-up was Elliott's idea, but the result is not at all what he originally had in mind. New Moon wanted to do The Laramie Project and thought partnering with LGBTQ-oriented ETC made good sense.
"I was excited about the partnership from the beginning," Smith says. The possibility of staging both plays at the same time only sweetened the pot.