I didn’t tell a soul in high school. I did my best to hide it from everybody, including myself.
Matthew Shepard didn’t have the luxury of hiding. His small stature and natural sensitivity gave away his ‘difference’.
We both had to deal with growing up gay. But while I came out soon after my 22nd birthday, Matthew’s life was cut short just weeks before his.
Matthew’s brutal murder in Laramie, Wyoming, attracted worldwide media attention.
New York company, Tectonic Theatre Project, cut through the hype, conducting hundreds of interviews with the people of Laramie. Using these interviews verbatim, they created The Laramie Project, and the follow up play, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.
Today, I walk into the Seymour Centre for our final dress rehearsal. The crew is busy sorting costumes and props (designed by Adrienne Dell) for the 123 characters listed across both plays. Each one of us in the cast of nine will be playing more than 10 characters. Andrew Hofman, sitting next to me in the dressing room, has photos up on his mirror of the real Laramie residents whose words he will soon be speaking on stage.
We journey through the two plays on our Wyoming-inspired hardwood set (designed by Dave Angelico, and lit by Martin Kinnane). The first play is set in 1998 during the Clinton presidency; the second one in 2008 – the year Obama was elected. I transition from being a Mormon leader, to a bar owner, to an emergency room doctor, to the investigating officer. In both plays, it is my job as different characters to come face to face with one of Matthew’s murderers, Aaron McKinney (played by Hofman, after transitioning from theatre student, to hospital CEO, to Dean of the Law School, etc, etc).
After receiving notes from our co-directors, Carly Fisher and Rosie Niven, I step back out into Sydney, 2018, and walk to my little apartment in Surry Hills. One of the characters’ lines bounces around in my head – “finding your safe pockets is what we do as gay people, not just here in Laramie, but wherever we live.”
So, what went wrong in Laramie in 1998? And what’s going wrong in Sydney in 2018? A year on from Australia’s marriage equality ‘debate’, young LGBTQI people continue to receive mixed messages about their perceived validity and worth.
It’s not all bad news of course. On the same day as our final dress rehearsal, SBS published a story on Sydney Catholic school student Finn Stannard, who received a standing ovation when he came out at a school assembly. What a joy to see Finn’s bravery and that of his peers.
Change is hard. And if we hope to bring others on the journey to acceptance, we must find new ways to have a discussion. We won’t get very far by staying in our social media echo chambers.
The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later provide a unique opportunity to zero in on different corners of society and get underneath homophobia. For me, the plays inspire compassion, open dialogue, and political action. I hope that everybody who sees the plays finds something unique that resonates with them, and walks away with strength and hope to change the world, one heart at a time.