The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard created an unforgettable moment in America’s history. In 1998, in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming, Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence, and then later died in the hospital from his injuries. His sexual orientation was the overlying theme in media coverage of the event, which brought significant attention to hate crime legislation in America.
Over the years, Shepard’s life has been memorialized in books, films, college campus tours, and many other formats. In 1998, the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie and conducted over 200 interviews with residents of the town to tell the complete story of how his death changed the town’s landscape forever.
From those interviews, “The Laramie Project” was born. The play uses eight actors, along with a simplistic set, props, and chairs, to bring over 100 characters to life in three acts.
“It’s a very odd show because it’s not a linear plot structure. It’s based on interviews and journal transcripts,” director Jacob Demlow explained.
“There’s such a wide variety of characters that it’s really easy for anyone to find someone they can latch onto and really feel connected with.”
Demlow worked with a cast of Atlanta actors to perform “The Laramie Project”, produced by Independent Artists’ Playhouse, at 7 Seven Stages Theatre in Atlanta in April, 2017.
Demlow is an actor and director from Newnan, Georgia, who came to Atlanta to seek more opportunities to work on his craft. He first learned about “The Laramie Project” in high school and then went on to participate in the show as an actor in college.
“Obviously, I’ve never been through anything like what Matthew Shepard went through, but I definitely think, being gay, this show will always be important to me,” Demlow said.
Demlow first met Quinton Brown and Evan McLean, the Co-Artistic Directors of Independent Artists’ Playhouse, in 2016 when he attended a performance of their production of “Title of Show” and expressed his interest in directing a show in Atlanta. “A year later they called me and said ‘Hey, we’re doing Laramie,’ and I jumped at the opportunity,” Demlow said.
From there, Demlow had the task of assembling a cast that could pull off the challenge of portraying multiple characters in rapid succession throughout the play.
“I chose a group that created a really nice ensemble,” Demlow said. “It wasn’t about finding the one, it was about finding eight characters that were extremely talented and able to carry the show.”
Once the cast was in place, Demlow then set to work to put the show together with less than one month of rehearsal time. Because of the range of locations and characters, the actors had to take on the job of finding ways to differentiate each role from the other.
“The actors take these different objects and props and take you into the world of Laramie,” Demlow said. “We have 8 chairs and the chairs at several times may set a scene. The chairs, like the ensemble, have to create many different places and settings.”
For Demlow, The highlight of directing the show was the process of watching the actors find new ways to bring each character to life throughout the rehearsal process. “With directing especially, I’ve always loved talking to actors and watching them make discoveries. Since there are so many characters in this show, there’s so much room for discovery,” he said.
Though the play is set in the late 90s, Demlow feels its message is still relevant to today’s political and social climate.
“There’s so much going on in the world with hate crimes and people not loving and accepting people who are different from them,” Demlow said. “This show is a reminder of what can happen when we don’t accept one another.”
Because of its significance, Demlow feels “The Laramie Project” is the type of show that can reach audiences from all walks of life. “Even if someone doesn’t’ like theatre they can come and see a message of hope and a message of love that has come out of something hateful,” Demlow said. “It’s sad. It’s not a toe tapping musical. But it definitely has a message of hope.”
The final performances for “The Laramie Project” took place on April 23, 2017. The cast consisted of Brittani Minnieweather, Allison Bennett, Hannah Marie Craton, Jordan Demers, Brandon Lee Browning, Jeffrey Allen Sneed, Michael Pugh, and Triumph Gardner.
Read more about Matthew Shepard and his legacy here.