Research for the The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman’s internationally successful play, began one month after a horrific crime occurred in the city of Laramie, Wyoming. Members of Kaufman’s theatrical group, Tectonic Theater Project, volunteered to travel with their director from New York City to the wide-open ranges of the West in order to gather in-person interviews from Laramie’s populace. The idea was to capture the emotions, reflections, and reactions of the people who were most closely related to the crime—the brutal beating and subsequent death of a young college student. Was this a hate crime? Or was it a random, senseless assault and robbery? No matter which, Kaufman’s objective was to explore the issues of homosexuality, religion, class, economics, education, and non-traditional lifestyles through the residents’ raw responses to the incident. How did this crime define the culture, not just of this Western town, but of the entire United States?
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old gay student registered at the University of Wyoming, was tied to a cattle fence, beaten about the head, robbed, and left to die on a bitterly cold night in October. Eighteen hours later, he was accidentally discovered by a biker, who had trouble believing that the figure he saw attached to the fence was human. Police and ambulances were dispatched, and Shepard was taken to a local hospital; all to no avail. Shepard was beyond recovery. He never regained consciousness and died several days later due to his head injuries. Two local young men were charged with the crime.
The play is based on more than 400 interviews with about 100 Laramie residents, as well as journal entries from the members of Tectonic Theater Project and Kaufman, as they reflect on their own reactions to the crime and to the interviews they carried out. Structured as a documentary, it attempts to reenact the events that occurred on that fateful night.
The play opened at the Denver Theater Center in March 2000 and two months later moved to Union Square Theater in New York, where it ran for five months. Later, HBO and the Sundance Theater Lab turned the play into a film, which Kaufman also directed. It was presented on opening night of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, with Sundance founder Robert Redford making a special appearance to introduce the movie. Kaufman received two Emmy Award nominations as director and writer of the film.