The Laramie Project

by Moisés Kaufman

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Historical Context

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Gay Rights

The Society for Human Rights, established in Chicago in 1924, was the first organization in the United States that promoted the rights of people who classified themselves as homosexuals. But it would take almost thirty more years before a national gay-rights group would be founded. That came in the establishment of the Mattachine Society, headed by Harry Hay, whom many people consider the father of the gay-rights movement. Five years later, in 1956, a group devoted completely to women, the Daughters of Bilitis, was created to bring together a focused movement specifically for lesbians. But it was during the 1960s, a time when the attention of the nation was focused on civil rights for African Americans and for women, that the movement for gay rights truly gained momentum. One particular incident, called the Stonewall Riots, which occurred at a New York gay bar when customers resisted arrest, ignited the gay-rights movement in the United States. That night in 1969 would go down in history as the first time gay people fought back. As the news of the resisted arrests spread, the movement for gay rights became more determined and people began to demand civil and social rights for homosexuals.

Homosexual acts were illegal in the United States until 1962, when Illinois became the first state to decriminalize homosexual acts in the privacy of one’s own home. By the end of the twentieth century most states had repealed these laws that prohibited homosexual acts. Those states that continued to enforce laws against homosexual acts were made invalid by a Supreme Court ruling in 2003 in the case Lawrence v. Texas, which invalidated the criminal prohibition of homosexual acts.

In the twenty-first century, the fight for gay rights is focused on civil unions and same-sex marriage. Although this is a contentious issue in the United States, several European countries and several provinces in Canada do recognize same-sex marriage.

Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard was born in Casper, Wyoming, in 1976. He attended Catawba and Casper Colleges before transferring to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where he was majoring in political science. On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew left the Fireside Bar in Laramie with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Eighteen hours later, Matthew was found alive but unconscious, tied to a cattle fence outside of Laramie. After being taken to the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, it was determined that he had suffered from a skull fracture that extended from the back of his head to the front of his right ear. He also had several deep lacerations on his face, neck, and head. The medical team decided that his injuries were too severe to operate. Matthew never regained consciousness and died on October 12 at 12:53 a.m.

McKinney and Henderson were apprehended shortly after the beating. The bloody gun that had been used to pistol-whip Matthew was found, as well as Matthew’s shoes and credit card. McKinney’s and Henderson’s girlfriends supplied false alibis for the two suspected murderers.

Henderson pleaded guilty of the crime on April 5, 1999, and agreed to testify against McKinney in a plea bargain. In exchange for his testimony, Henderson received two consecutive life sentences with no chance for parole. McKinney was tried and found guilty. After Matthew Shepard’s father made a statement against the death penalty, McKinney was given two consecutive life sentences without chance of parole.


Ancient tribes lived in Wyoming at least 12,000 years ago. Remnants of this culture can still be seen at places like Medicine Wheel, outside of Lovell. More modern tribes like the Sioux,...

(This entire section contains 929 words.)

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Shoshone, and Cheyenne were cultivating the land when the first white explorer, John Colter, arrived in 1807. Fur trappers soon followed, including such legends as Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith. When gold was discovered in California, more and more settlers drove their wagon trains through Wyoming, creating a need for re-stocking stations and military forts. Fort Laramie was one of the most important military installations in Wyoming. More people streamed through the state, and many of them decided to settle there, creating some of the first cattle ranches, where huge herds of buffalo once roamed.

Wyoming is known as the Equity State, being one of the first states in the Union to recognize the rights of women. In 1869, Wyoming was the first government in the world to give women the right to vote. One year later, Ester Hobart Morris became the first female justice of the peace. In 1924, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected the first female governor in the United States.

Laramie, named for the trapper Jacques LaRamee, was first established by the confluence of a small military settlement and a later need by the newly developing railroad for a place to maintain trains. Two things that made Laramie a good location for a settlement were the abundance of fresh water in the Laramie River and a nearby forest in the Medicine Bow Mountains. By the end of the nineteenth century, two more additions to the town—the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming Territorial Prison—provided economic stability. The discovery of gold and silver in the mountains at the turn of the century was also a welcome boost.

Today, Laramie is a small town of less than 30,000 residents that enjoys relatively mild weather, a low cost of living, and below-national-average unemployment. The town sits in the southeastern corner of the state on Interstate 80, about forty miles northwest of Cheyenne. It is more than a mile high, surrounded by national forests, and intersected by the Laramie River. Many websites related to the town make reference to Matthew Shepard.

Literary Style

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The docudrama is a fact-based representation of real events. Unlike other forms of drama, the docudrama tries to represent the truth of an event that really happened. To think of it in another way, you might say that a docudrama is a nonfiction play.

The Laramie Project is a docudrama. It was written as if it were an actual documentary. Moisés Kaufman took his group, Tectonic Theater Project, to Laramie, Wyoming, to gather interviews concerning the murder of Matthew Shepard. This was a real event, and the interviews were given by real citizens of Laramie, where the murder occurred. The point of the play was to present the reactions of the people of Laramie to this horrendous crime. Kaufman believed that a reflection of this event by the people involved would provide a vehicle for discussion about homosexuality and hate crimes around the world. In order to accurately present the information that he and his troupe had gathered, Kaufman created the illusion of reality by formatting his play not as a fictional story, but rather as a reenactment of the interviews. The fictional, or artistic, part of the play was in how Kaufman pulled all this information together and made it tell a story. There were few props in the play, and only a handful of actors to play the multiple roles. The material was grouped according to themes that were used to build up the tension in the play. In a few cases, some of the Laramie residents asked that their names not be used, but overall, real names were used. And much of the dialogue came from the recorded interviews.

Structural Patterns

The format of the play followed a regular pattern, broken down into three different shapes. The first shape was called a “Moment.” These were interspersed throughout the play and provided the audience with a more focused look at specific parts of the drama. Often, the Moments were reflections by Tectonic Theater Project members as they thought about their reactions to being in Laramie and having to face the comments and emotions of Laramie residents. At other times, the Moment sections were used to explore the reactions and emotions of specific residents in order to give the audience a deeper appreciation of some of the people’s fears or beliefs.

In between the Moments sections, the play used short segments of interviews. Sometimes a person’s comments would be interrupted by the comments of someone else who either agreed or disagreed with them, offering the audience a balanced approach to the reactions to the murder. The interview segments were loosely structured to provide a sort of timeline to the events that lead up to the crime, as well as to those that took place afterwards. The interviews were also used to provide background information on Laramie and the culture of the people who lived there.

The third portion of the pattern was the direct announcements or speeches that were longer than the comments offered in interviews. For example, there are announcement made by the medical staff at the hospital where Matthew Shepard fought for his life. There were statements from the press, supposedly taken from actual news accounts. There was also the speech that Matthew’s father presented in the courtroom.

Contrast and Juxtaposition

The snippets of conversations that were held between the members of Tectonic Theater Project and the residents of Laramie are arranged in such a way that the audience feels the emotions of the people who felt them. In order to do this, Kaufman placed real statements in positions of contrast or juxtaposition—either against one another or complimenting one another. For example, in one section of the play there are a series of comments offered by various religious leaders of the town. Some of these leaders are very much against homosexuality, while others have more open minds. While one interviewee speaks of biblical passages against homosexuality, another religious person denies this, offering a counter-interpretation. Another example is provided when the interviews focus on the accused murderers. The people of Laramie cannot understand how two of their children could have committed such an awful crime. In order to present the emotions they are feeling, or to further enhance these emotions, Kaufman offers the audience not only a discussion of the crime and its hideous details—the scene in which it is noted that Matthew’s face was washed in his tears, the transcript of McKinney’s confession of the crime—but also comments by people who remember what a sweet child McKinney was.

Another example of contrast is the various comments by people of the town who claim that the overall attitude was “live and let live.” They claim that most people do not mind that one person or another might be a homosexual—it is nobody’s business but their own. But in contrast to that opinion are the comments offered by gay members of the community, who express their fear for their own lives.

Media Adaptations

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The Laramie Project was adapted as a film by HBO in 2001. It stared Christina Ricci, Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Janeane Garofalo, Dylan Baker, Amy Madigan, and many others.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brustein, Robert, “The Staged Documentary,” in the New Republic, Vol. 222, No. 25, June 19, 2000, pp. 29–30.

Gluck, Victor, Review of The Laramie Project, in Back Stage, Vol. 41, No. 22, June 2–8, 2000, p. 56.

Helbig, Jack, Review of The Laramie Project, in the Booklist, Vol. 98, No. 1, September 1, 2001, pp. 43–44.

Kaufman, Ed, Review of The Laramie Project, in Hollywood Reporter, Vol. 373, June 11–17, 2002, p. 22.

Kaufman, Moisés, and the members of Tectonic Theater Project, The Laramie Project, Vintage Books, 2001.

Lloyd, Emily, “The Laramie Project: A Play,” in School Library Journal, Vol. 47, No. 11, November 2001, p. 194.

Mason, M. S., “Laramie Project Connects Stage to Social Ills,” in the Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 2000, p. 19.

Miller, Howard, Review of The Laramie Project: A Play, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 14, September 1, 2001, p. 179.

Pochoda, Elizabeth, “The Talk in Laramie,” in the Nation, Vol. 270, No. 24, June 19, 2000, pp. 33–34.

Shewey, Don, “Town in a Mirror,” in American Theatre, Vol. 17, No. 5, May–June 2000, pp. 14–22.

Zoglin, Richard, “Voices from Laramie,” in Time, Vol. 155, No. 19, May 8, 2000, p. 86.

Further Reading

Clum, John M., Acting Gay, Columbia University Press, 1992.

Clum examines twentieth-century American and British plays that involve gay men, including those by Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, and Peter Shaffer.

Helminiak, Daniel A., What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, Alamo Square Press, 1994.

Helminiak is a Catholic priest who has carefully studied the Bible in search of passages that relate to homosexuality. This book is based on his interpretations of his studies as well as other scholarly research, which conclude that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality.

Loffreda, Beth, Losing Matt Shepard, Columbia University Press, 2000.

Loffreda arrived at the University of Wyoming after the murder of Matt Shepard. But as advisor of the campus Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Association, she has both an insider’s and an outsider’s view on how Shepard’s death affected, and still affects, the Laramie community.

O’Connor, Sean, Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan, Cassell, 1998.

O’Connor examines the role and influence of Oscar Wilde’s plays and lifestyle on playwrights that were to follow him, taking the reader from the late nineteenth-century drama productions to those of the 1960s.

Perry, Barbara, In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crimes, Routledge, 2001.

Perry not only provides an historical account of hate crimes but offers her evaluation that hate crimes are symptomatic not just of hate, but also of inequalities within a culture and fear of differences.

Swigonski, Mary E., From Hate Crimes to Human Rights: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard, Haworth Social Work Practice Press, 2001.

Swigonski and other academics illuminate the road from hate crimes to legislation that may one day provide some sense of justice to the victims.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide