The shocking murder of a gay student in 1998 sparked a dramatic response in US schools. Now the play that took on the pedlars of hate is starting a season in the UK.
The Laramie Project
Cochrane Theatre, London from March 11
When a passing cyclist first spotted the crumpled figure tied to a ranch fence in Laramie, Wyoming, he thought it was some kind of scarecrow. But as he approached, he saw that it was a man, unconscious, battered, struggling for life.
The end of the struggle came five days later, on October 12, 1998, when Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student, died in hospital. He had been kidnapped, pistol-whipped, tethered to a fence and left to die in near freezing temperatures for 18 hours. Six months later, two men the same age as Matthew were charged with his murder and later sentenced to life imprisonment.
The killing unleashed a torrent of grief across the United States; there was collective soul-searching in the press and media, in places of worship, in schools and community organisations. The whole nation, it seemed, was suddenly talking about hate crimes, homophobia and the intolerance of those who are different that lies just beneath the surface of contemporary America. Shockingly, it also detonated an explosion of virulent homophobia from the religious right which celebrated the retribution visited on an "unrepentant sodomite".
It was in this climate that Moises Kaufman and his New-York-based Tectonic Theatre Project went to Laramie a month after the murder to research a drama production. They interviewed 200 local people, editing more than 400 hours of transcripts and crafting them, over two years, into The Laramie Project. The result is a mix of storytelling, documentary reportage and theatricality that takes a non-judgmental approach, untangling the issues without simplifying them through the words of people directly or indirectly involved.
Since its professional debut off-Broadway in 2000, it has been made into a television drama for HBO, has toured the US and been performed by more than 400 schools, colleges and amateur theatre groups, making it the second most produced play of 2001-2002. It won a Fringe First at last year's Edinburgh Festival and next Tuesday starts a three-and-a-half-week run of school matinees and evening performances at the Cochrane Theatre in London.
It is being performed here by the Red Chair Players of Greenwich Academy, a school drama group from Connecticut. Linda Key, head of drama at the school, is directing the same young actors who performed the play at the school last year and at Edinburgh.
The idea of putting it on came from one of her drama students. Within half an hour of posters going up in the school publicising the performances, they had been torn down. No one was surprised. "Greenwich, Connecticut, is the WASP capital of the United States and not known for its liberal views," says Ms Key. "But because the power of the play is that it gives every character a forum in which to express themselves, no one who's seen it has gone away unmoved or unchanged."
The offstage action has been as dramatic as the play itself. Some of the US schools that have staged it have been picketed by a Southern Baptist minister, Fred Phelps, and his followers (see cover). Phelps is notorious for his website, godhatesfags.com, which features graphics of Matthew Shepherd enveloped in flames, next to a calendar showing the number of days he's been burning in hell . "Kids have had to walk through Phelps and his screaming picketers to get into schools to see the play, which provides a stark contrast to the tone of the play," says Ms Keys. "Its central message is that we disagree about things in the US, but until you can talk over your views calmly and rationally, you're going to get the hysteria that led to Matthew's killing, and that fuels homophobic protests outside schools and theatres."
Ms Key says the play was a "community-changing event" when it was performed at Greenwich Academy last year. "It made a difference to the whole school by opening a dialogue on homophobia and other forms of prejudice. Kids who attended the first performance brought their parents to see it the next night. And the captain of the football team said after watching it that he would prohibit the use of 'gay' as an insult among his team."
Mary Birnbaum, 19, is a member of the original Greenwich Academy cast, all of whom take eight roles in the production. She has joined the London production in a gap year before Harvard. For her, the timing of the tour makes the play even more relevant than before. "Our country wasn't in the situation when we first performed it that we are in now. A central theme of the play is that tolerance and forgiveness are essential qualities for everyone.
"It's important to be telling our contemporaries that everyone has a story to tell and that they have their own perspective. In the case of Matthew Shepard, it was his homosexuality. In the case of the imminent war, it's people of Muslim descent. We need to be more tolerant in America and to be more able to accept other's views."
For Mary, the play has resonances with the way Americans have been feeling since September 11, 2001. One of her roles is that of a lesbian college professor from Laramie who was the first teacher to come out at the University of Wyoming. "She talks of being terrified that local people were out to get her. She felt that she never knew when she might be under attack. You can relate that at some level to the way many of us now feel about living with the constant threat of terrorism."
The play deals with the universal issues of living in a pluralistic society and accepting difference. But despite the rave reviews it has received in the US and at Edinburgh, the producer at the Cochrane, Deirdre Malynn, has been surprised by the sluggish bookings from sixth-forms and further education colleges for the eight matinee performances.
If it is to do with schools' fear of breaching Section 28 legislation, they can stop worrying. The Education and Skills Act 2000 makes it clear that responsibility for sex education lies with school governors not local authorities. Says a spokesman for Stonewall: "Few headteachers know that Section 28 is a redundant piece of legislation that doesn't apply to schools anymore. But it's important that they do know."
The Laramie Project, directed by Linda Key, runs from March 11 to April 6, Tuesday-Saturday at 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday matineesschool performances at 2pm, Sunday matinees at 2.30pm at the Cochrane Theatre, Southampton Row, London WC1 4AP. Box office: 0207 269 1606