In 1998, gay student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten by two men and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming.

Just a month after his murder, members of the Tectonic Theatre Project arrived in Laramie and conducted a series of interviews that formed the basis of the 1999 play The Laramie Project.

Members of Tectonic returned to Laramie in 2008, planning on gathering enough information for a short epilogue to the original play.

They discovered a town still grappling with its uncomfortable legacy a decade on, and so the epilogue became a sequel, The Laramie Project: 10 Years On, which opens at Red Stitch this week.

“It’s very much about how we construct our stories, our histories and our identities,” director Gary Abrahams said, fresh from his recent Green Room win for his body of work over the past year.

“The word ‘Laramie’ had become synonymous with hate crimes and bigotry, partly through the media and partly through the original Laramie Project, which had kept that idea of Laramie alive.

“But of course there are people in that town who don’t want to be painted that way and want to move on — as well as people who say that it’s part of their history and needs to be remembered, so we can always remember what hate does.”

One of the more shocking discoveries the theatre company made was the historical revisionism that had taken place. For many in the town, and particularly among younger people who didn’t have firsthand memories of the murder, Shepard’s death was viewed not as a hate crime but a ‘robbery gone bad’.

“For so many people to now believe that it was just a botched robbery really belittles the work that Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, and many of the other people in the town did, in terms of getting hate crimes laws passed in Congress and such,” Abrahams said.

The cast of nine actors, including stage and screen veteran Kym Gyngell and Red Stitch ensemble members David Whiteley and Emma Caldwell, portray 48 characters in the play — including Shepard’s murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who Tectonic spoke to at length.

“There’s a big difference between where the two of them are emotionally 10 years on. You get the sense that Aaron himself doesn’t even know the truth any more. He oscillates between admitting it was a crime motivated by the fact Matthew was gay, and that it was just a robbery that escalated.

“They’ve been kept together for 10 years — within prison life, they can’t seem to escape each other. You realise they only knew each other for a couple of months before the murder.

“They weren’t lifelong friends, they were just workmates who were out drinking one night and are now forever bound together because of what they did.”

info: The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later plays at Red Stitch until May 28. Visit www.redstitch.net

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