Matthew Shepard and the Power of the Theatre

Dr. David Mazel
Adams State College
One of the greatest of the great stories at Adams State College is our theatre program.
Back in the day, when I was a student here, there was hardly a theatre program at all, just a student club with a part-time adviser staging an occasional production of “Carousel” on an ancient and inadequate stage in Richardson Hall.
Today, the program has four faculty members, a multimillion-dollar state of-the-art theatre building where some 50 majors stage seven to nine productions every year. And while the program still offers crowd pleasers like “Miracle on 34th Street,” syrup is no longer the main dish. The program has also given us “The Vagina Monologues” and “Dead Man Walking,” and brought to campus figures of such stature as Sister Helen Prejean and “Zoot Suit” playwright Luis Valdez. It offers courses like Improvisational Acting and Theatre and Social Change — wonders all but unimaginable when I arrived here as a student in 1984.
Those who need a sports analogy might think of ASC Theatre as a Division I program at a Division-II school. If it helps, think of the ways our cross-country teams thrill their audiences and recruit students and represent the college to the outside world. Take all that, mix in a commitment to artistic excellence, community service, and social justice, and you have ASC Theatre.
Which brings me to last week’s performance of “The Laramie Project: Ten Years After.”
Some of my readers will recall that the original “Laramie Project,” written in response to the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, was performed here in 2002. The play was based largely on interviews of Laramie residents and the journals of members of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project, which raw materials were fashioned into an occasionally preachy but mostly moving production that documented and critiqued American homophobia at a pivotal moment in its history.
Since premiering in 2000, “The Laramie Project” has been staged at thousands of schools nationwide, making it one of the most decisive theatrical interventions in this country’s ongoing culture wars.
Ten years later comes the imaginatively titled “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later,” directed by theatre professor John Taylor (who also directed ASC’s 2002 production of the original play) and featuring performances by Taylor, Paul Newman, Jenna Neilsen, and several returning alumni.
“Ten Years Later” revisits many of the sources of the original play in order to chart the progress of gay liberation in the hinterland — and, more subtly, to explore what is at stake in what academics like to call “the cultural contestation of meaning.”
Both the original and the follow-up play are not just about Shepard’s killing, but also about the meaning of that event, and perhaps more importantly, about who will control that meaning.
Was the murder motivated largely by the killers’ admitted antipathy to gay people, or was it just a “robbery gone bad,” as some continue to insist? If the former, Shepard can symbolize the evil of homophobia and function politically as a martyr for gay rights. If the latter, not so much, leaving the gay-rights movement without the sort of symbol all movements need to succeed.
It would be naïve to think of the question of the motivation behind Shepard’s murder as merely a matter of fact. It’s never enough simply to have the truth on your side. In addition, you need the cultural power to inject that truth into the public imagination and make it stick.
Actually, if you’ve got the power, the facts are strictly optional — witness Rupert Murdoch and FOX News.
What if you’re not a billionaire like Murdoch? How do you win at cultural politics if you can’t afford your own propaganda channel? One way is through the world-shaping power of the theatre, whose awesome force you can experience, and whose craft you can learn, right here at ASC. is powered by WordPress µ | Spam prevention powered by Akismet