“Live and let live,” was a phrase folks in Laramie liked to say to describe their attitudes and outlook toward others.
That was until the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, who was beaten to death in Laramie in October 1998 by two local men.
A theater production about the brutal murder and the town’s reaction, "The Laramie Project," opens at Carroll College Friday, Feb. 9, with shows running through Feb. 17 at the Carroll College Flex Theatre in the Campus Center.
It is a documentary-style play by Moises Kaufman and The Tectonic Theater Project that uses the transcribed words of over 200 real residents of Laramie at the time of the murder and the year after.
Carroll alumnus John Rausch, who has appeared in numerous local theater productions at Grandstreet and Helena Theatre Company, directs the play.
A cast of 33, made up of faculty staff, students and community members, play more than 60 roles and voices in the play.
The production also uses video projections on screens in Carroll’s black-box FLEX Theatre, including footage and images from the event, one re-enactment and a newscast done by the cast.
“I fell in love with the script,” said Daniel Olszewski, a junior at Carroll, “because I think anyone who views this show can relate with one of the characters...no matter what their background or views on homosexuality. I think the show does a beautiful job of contrasting your opinion with others’ opinions you may not agree with in a way you respect it -- and I wanted to be part of that.”
Olszewski’s character is Aaron Kreifels, the university student who was out mountain biking and found Shepard tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die.
It’s a really emotional scene and a challenging one, said Olszewski. Kreifels, who is religious, struggles with his religion and why he had to be the one who finds Shepard.
Religion will play a central role in reactions to Shepard’s death -- from those who are horrified to those who celebrate it.
Olszewski was particularly moved by the compassionate response of the local Catholic priest, Father Roger Schmit. “It’s a very empowering story of ...love that comes from the Catholic priest and concern with violence in general.”
This is in sharp contrast to that of Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, who led anti-gay protests outside both the funeral and murder trial. “God’s hatred is pure,” Phelps proclaims.
Everyone can find themself on the political spectrum, said Rausch, referring to the views voiced in the play.
“The event is a 20-year-old story, but the timeliness is immediate. ...It’s probably never been more difficult or more easy to be a gay student on a campus.”
The rise of social media gives people a platform to voice tolerance and understanding, he said, but also hatred.
“Hate is not a Laramie value,” were the words posted on the sign at the University Inn, following Shepard’s death.
The play has numerous characters who say “Laramie is a live and let live kind of town,” said Rausch. “Except now they have to deal with someone who didn’t get that message. All of a sudden it was, ‘you’re different than me and I think that gives me the right to beat you to death.’”
But it’s also more than a story of pain, tragedy and reckoning.
"I do think there is hope in it,” said Carroll theatrical production director Kimberly Shire. “It’s a story of the community and how the community survived.”
She chose this play, she said, because it tied in with the mission of Carroll Theatre, which states in part: “Our goal is to foster effective and inclusive community...through the arts.”
And this year is also the 20th anniversary of the murder.
Cathy Day, associate vice president of academic affairs at Carroll, plays “spunky” local bartender Marge Murray.
A mainstay of the community, Marge is intimately connected to the story because her daughter is the deputy who is the first to respond to the scene.
Day remembers this news story unfolding when she was working at a Catholic college in Great Falls and recalls conversations, “This could happen here. This could happen to someone we know and love.”
“There’s redemption here,” she said of the play.
“This play is really powerful.
“It talks about issues central to who we are,” said Day. “It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror...and coming to terms with who you are and with your brokenness and your faults and your goodness and gifts.”
Shows are 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Feb. 11. Parking is free in the Campus Center lot off of Lyndale for all performances.
The theatre is fully ADA accessible through the east entrance of the Campus Center.
Tickets are available at the door or at www.carroll.edu/theatre/theatre-season. Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 for students and seniors, and $2 with a current Carroll College ID. Use the coupon code: “shire” for a $4 discount on tickets if you purchase tickets online (not valid with Carroll ID tickets).
A talk back will be held after the Feb. 15 performance
Knights of Columbus will be on hand with a beer and wine bar before shows and during intermission.