The Laramie Project is the tragic story of a small American town coming to terms with the violent murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in October of 1998. Originally written by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Company, the play follows Laramie’s residents as they work through the seven stages of grief and rediscover their identity as a community.
Twenty years later, first-time theatre director Aiden Rowlingson (pictured, right) and Mad Women on the Shore hit the Anywhere Theatre Festival with their own, modern production of the play. With a little hindsight and a lot of glitter, Rowlingson and his team prove there are still lessons to be learned from The Laramie Project.
What’s your role like as a director/producer in a festival like Anywhere Theatre?
It’s been interesting because I didn’t know what venue I was going to be able to find. It was a challenge in itself – especially to find one for low cost because it’s indie theatre. But once we had our venue I was like ‘What can we do with it to get the most out of that venue?’ and trying to explain that to the actors because they hadn’t seen it. ATF’s been really supportive; any problems I had I could go to their team with.
Did the Paddington Substation space affect how you developed your production?
The space we got is very small, but there’s still so much we can do with it. We also hired the venue with another group, so we have time limitations for bump-ins and bump-outs. When their show finishes we have half an hour to get their audience out and our audience in. Everything we need has to be carried in, set up, and ready to go so we can get straight into it.
My next question is ‘why The Laramie Project?’
We just had the plebiscite, and marriage equality is now legal in Australia, so we wanted to show how far we’ve come from the perspective of a small town – since I myself am from a small town. Growing up in Childers, I was bullied in high school for being gay before I even knew I was gay, so I can relate to what it was like for Matthew Shepard to grow up in a small town and be gay. It feels sometimes like you have to watch what you’re doing because people still hold traditional values.
We talk about creating safe spaces for LGBT people, but I think it’s just as important to have spaces for people who are wanting to learn more to come to meet us and get informed. I mean yeah you can Google it, but I don’t think it’s the same as talking to someone and hearing their story. I think that’s very much what The Laramie Project does.
So how is your production different from what you’ve seen?
Day dot I made sure my cast watched as much as they could, and it seemed like everyone else had done the ‘straight’ play: where the cast sits in chairs at the back of the stage and gets up to deliver their monologues. I thought ‘this is great’, but I don’t think it engages audiences as much as we need it to these days. We wanted to see how far we could take the work.
We wanted to recognise where we were twenty years ago and how far we’ve come, but then how far we’ve got to go. We allude to Stonewall and the murder of Harvey Milk – stuff like that – but I think we’ve set it up in a way that, when they leave, we’ve still got something to do. Because there’s still stuff to do. We want our audience to question queer history and look into it themselves.
I’ve mostly seen productions that use the cardboard box…
Yeah, so we still do that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the convention, and I feel it fits the play and what we want to do with it. But we did toss up how we could get away with not having so many costumes and how we could do it differently.
With other productions, I’ve seen it’s like they’re playing the tragedy of the play. We didn’t want to do that. These characters are real people who get nervous when interviewed (yet experience happiness, joy, anger, and frustration) and they tend to blame themselves when tragic things happen. So we wanted to go and… throw some glitter on them.
The Laramie Project is on from May 19 to 27 at the Paddington Tramways Substation. For more information, visit the Anywhere Theatre festival website.