Twenty years after Kilgore was caught up in a storm of controversy surrounding a college play featuring gay characters, Kilgore College's theater department will present “The Laramie Project”, a play based on a town’s reaction to the 1998 murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shephard.
In 1999, KC theater instructor and director Raymond Caldwell premiered “Angels in America”, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play centered on the issues of homosexuality and the AIDS crisis in America in the 1980s and 1990s. News of the performance incensed some in the community, who picketed and protested its premiere and some funding for Texas Shakespeare Festival, which Caldwell founded in 1986, was cut. The controversy was even covered in the New York Times.
Despite the controversy, “The Laramie Project” is a very different play compared to “Angels in America” and the world, including Kilgore, has changed over the past 20 years.
Directors Meaghan and Matthew Simpson said Micah Goodding, head of KC’s theater department, made the call to perform “The Laramie Project.”
“Hhe chose it because it was the 20 year anniversary of when ‘Angels in America’ was produced at KC,” Meaghan said, noting “the shows have very different themes.”
“Both of them deal with how gay people were treated in the 90s,” Matthew said.
“’Angels in America’ was produced twenty years ago. Micah just thought it would be appropriate to honor what that experience was like 20 years ago and he thought this was a good fit,” Meaghan said.
The KC directors aren’t the only ones to have taken note of the 20 year anniversary. Wes Ferguson, former KC student and editor of campus newspaper The Flare, penned an article and interview with Caldwell on the play and the backlash against it in the November edition of Texas Monthly.
Still, things have changed.
KC has performed “The Laramie Project” once before, in 2004, just a few years after the controversy surrounding “Angels in America.”
“We spoke to Raymond Caldwell,” Meaghan said.
“He was the one who directed it in 2004. He described the difference in those 5-6 years as being astounding. ‘Angels in America’ made national headlines and there were protests. With ‘The Laramie Project’ 5 years later, it was no big deal.”
Part of the reason for the different reaction may lie in the different stories presented by each play.
“’The Laramie Project is’ much more about a hate crime and a town that has to live with the crime. ‘Angels in America is more about the gay community. ‘Angels’ shows gay relationships and the AIDS crisis,” Matthew said.
“The Laramie Project” may provide audience members a chance to see themselves in its story, he added.
“When they leave, they’ll realize it’s a play about hope, grace and forgiveness and God, frankly. I think a lot of people who might try to line up their religious values in this play, I think they’ll actually realize that it does line up.”
“The Laramie Project” is unique compared to many stage plays. It’s an example of “verbatim theater”, a style similar to documentary filmmaking. Playwright Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project based the original script on hundreds of interviews with Laramie residents and those familiar with the murder.
The style of the play “changes the focus a little bit,” Meaghan said.
“We made the decision to have the actors on stage at all times and all their costumes. Everything from the first scene remains there for the entire show.”
The unique staging facilitates the portrayal of dozens of viewpoints surrounding the murder of Shephard, with only 8 actors portraying more than 60 characters throughout the show. Actors change costumes, mannerisms and personalities onstage as the show progresses.
“It intentionally pushes the audience into a more theatrical experience. It gives a way for the actors to take on different characters and for the audience to accept it,” Meaghan said.
Matthew said working on the play has been fun as a director, offering the chance to look at how actors fit into the play as a whole and the best way to make everything work together.
“For us, it’s a learning experience,” he said.
The play also offers a challenge to the collegiate actors portraying multiple characters in one show.
“That’s something where we asked them to do a lot of preparation beforehand. Once we got in the room, we make constant changes. You want to have dynamics in a scene. You don’t want to have two characters in a scene with similar voices,” Matthew said, adding adjustments are still being made in the final week of rehearsals.
“Every single character in this play is based on a real person,” Meaghan said. She said some student actors might be tempted to look up the person they are portraying “which can be helpful for some of the characters but wouldn’t be as theatrical as we wanted it to be. We’re not trying to mimic or impersonate the real people. We’re just trying to tell the real story.”
The directors approached Caldwell for advice before starting rehearsals. In the 2004 production, Caldwell had he actors wear minimal, all-black costumes with sparse scenery and stage dressing. The 2019 production is following a similar tactic, with actors wearing earth tones and sometimes portraying another character by only changing one element of their clothing. The play has been updated though and this staging will include projections onstage throughout the play.
“It’s one of those plays where you know you can’t do too much because the story and the characterization and way it has to unfold, there’s a clear way to approach it,” Meaghan said.
The directors aim to reach the audience with the themes of the play: love and loss in the face of tragedy and overcoming stereotypes and negative attitudes.
“I think Laramie, Wyoming is similar to Kilgore,” Matthew said.
“It’s a small town. It has a college. It revolves a lot around industry. I think (the audience) will see a lot of themselves in this town. They’ll see, in every town, there is love and hate, good and evil. They’ll take a fresh look at Kilgore and we have both of these things in this town and they’ll want to be part of a positive change.”
“The Laramie Project” premieres in the Van Cliburn Auditorium on the KC campus Thursday, Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m., with additional performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and a matinee performance Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting www.Kilgore.edu/theatre or calling the box office at 903-983-8126 from 2 to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.