Never Such Innocence Again

Eleven years after Matthew Shepard was crucified for being gay, Seattle Rep joins one hundred theatres around the world to unveil a new play about him — and about us all

Illustration by Sean Alexander

Thirteen years ago, photojournalist-turned-artist Tricia McInroy met a guy named Matt at a gay party in Laramie, Wyoming. Turned out Matt had gone to her junior high and high school. “He was sweet, maybe a little naïve, searching, kind of lost, looking for advice,” says McInroy. “A very open person who immediately wanted to connect with people. You wanted to be protective of him. He had a really nice face, kind of small.” McInroy wanted to feature him in a fashion shoot. Instead, she covered his funeral. Matthew Shepard, 21, was tortured to death in 1998 by two thieving thugs who pretended to befriend him at a bar. Of the fifty million people who have seen the 1999 docudrama about Shepard’s murder, The Laramie Project, by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, McInroy is unusually qualified to express an opinion: she knew the man, the place and multiple dramatis personae. “I was nervous about people back East telling us who we are. But it seemed accurate. They came and listened.”

This year, they listened again. And on October 12, the anniversary of his death, Seattle Rep stages The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, starring Marianne Owen, Suzanne Bouchard and Sarah Rudinoff, with Troy Fischnaller as Shepard’s murderer Aaron McKinney. “It’s a completely new play,” says the Rep’s artistic director, Jerry Manning. “They went back and interviewed many of the people in the original, to gauge where we have come — have we moved forward? Have we regressed?”

Manning won’t say precisely what they found. He has to keep mum, because the play is being performed simultaneously worldwide. “This has never been done before, where the world premiere is at over a hundred theatres,” says Manning. “Hong Kong, Mombasa, France, London.” In Seattle as everywhere, viewers will be encouraged to tweet during the show. All tweets will be sent to Lincoln Center in New York, where there will be a talk-back with the play’s creators after the show.

“Without revealing the secrets of the new text,” says Manning, “I think what they found was kind of shocking. A lot of what they discovered was people saying, ‘Oh, hate crime, schmate crime, he was coming on to his murderers at a bar.’ Or ‘That doesn’t happen here’ — or ‘That happens everywhere.’ And it does. It happens on Capitol Hill.”

The central shock, and probably the dramatic centerpiece, is a scene based on several hours of new interviews with murderer McKinney. “It detonates onstage. It’s harrowing, bloodcurdling. A complete retraction of the confession he made. The anger, the hate is frightening.” In the killer’s opinion, says Manning, the real victim is not Matthew Shepard but poor, misunderstood Aaron McKinney.

The new play will reignite the Shepard controversy, just when the original version has settled quietly into the mainstream of the theatre world. “Did you know The Laramie Project is the most-produced play in American high schools and colleges in the past twenty-five years?” asks Manning. “Karen O’Shea in our development department told me, ‘My daughter is auditioning for The Laramie Project at Seattle Academy the same time as the epilogue is up here.’” It makes sense: Shepard’s fate is a civics lesson, and the ensemble script is ideal for schools. “The play is just daring enough,” observes Manning. “And everyone gets a role.”

Manning thinks our increasingly polarized time is ripe for the new Shepard play. At his funeral, gay activists contended with shouting gay haters, some of whom tried to erect a Wyoming monument reading, “Matthew Shepard Entered Hell October 12, 1998.” Manning compares them to the people shouting about Obama at town hall meetings. “I would go out on a limb and say you see this terror in their eyes. You see anger and fear. I don’t want to equate that with Aaron McKinney. But the parallels are kind of frightening.”

McInroy is uneasy about the controversy, and with the symbol Shepard has become — the gay saint. “He wasn’t. Now he’s this icon nobody could ever measure up to. He wasn’t sitting there talking about gay rights all the time. He cared about everybody’s rights. What I remember him talking about was senior citizens, and being caring about them.”

McInroy says locals are wary about how the searing lens of notoriety reduces everyone to stereotype. “Outsiders were like, ‘Wow, this town is really conservative.’ There’s more of a gay community in Laramie than almost anywhere in the state. There was a hate group at the funeral, but most of them were out-of-towners.” And she says that things have changed since the murder. The friend through whom she met Shepard came out, and in 2003 he became the state’s first openly gay official, the mayor of Casper. The gay campout event in Wyoming where McInroy met her mate used to be “a total secret event, where people only used first names and there weren’t even any fliers. Now there’s a Web site for it.”

“People oversimplify,” says McInroy. “They say nothing has changed because no [hate-crime] laws passed. As a gay person, I would feel better if there were laws in place. But at the same time, at the homecoming parade [after Shepard’s murder], all these people stood up for civil rights in his name. I really felt overall, they thought: ‘We may or may not understand the gay issue, but we don’t approve of this.’” The real law against hate, McInroy implies, was passed in Wyoming hearts. “I felt better even with my own family,” says McInroy.

I’ll go out on a limb and say I think Matt Shepard would ask for one legacy: less hate all around. “He gave me a hug when I was leaving,” recalls McInroy. “That’s unusual to me for someone I’ve only met once.”