2018 is a significant year for the play The Laramie Project. It not only marks 18 years since the play premiered but also marks the 20th Anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s tragic death.
Since that horrible night on Oct 6th, 1998, our country has come a long way into not only ensuring the rights of those in the LGBTQ+ community but also prosecuting hate crimes and much of that serves as a tribute to Matthew Shepard.
This year, The Laramie Project is sure to be one of the most produced plays across the country. In fact, usually is regardless of what year it is. But for one director in CT, the play is all the more personal. Because while much of the world knows Matthew through this play and his story, Shannon-Courtney Denihan got to know him while they were friends in college.
“Matt was one of the most generous, loving people I’ve ever known. He would give you the shirt off his back,” Denihan tells me. She and “Matt” both attended Catawba College in Salisbury,NC from 1994-96. Both majoring in theatre there, they connected as most theatre majors typically do. “We were instant friends, his smile could light a room. He was one of my closest friends always watching out for each other,” she says.
Their love for theatre played out on stage and in the audience. Denihan recalls the several productions they were in together including Edward Albee’s Finding the Sun. She also remembers going to see RENT during its original Broadway run.
At the end of the 1996 school year, both Shannon and Matthew transferred out of Catawba but stayed in touch. Shannon recalls that he spoke with Matthew shortly before his death.
The Laramie Project requires not only a talented cast but one that is fully aware of the gravity of performing such a piece. Now add the fact that the director was friends with Matthew Shepard and I had to wonder how the cast, at the Community Theatre at Woodbury, was handling the material.
“Willingly, honestly and willing to put their whole selves in it,” says Denihan. “They have had to show such commitment and dedication to the characters because they are real people speaking their real words.”
In the past 20 years since Matthew’s death, a lot has changed. Thankfully, there is now legislation to instill harsher penalties for hate crime perpetrators. I asked Shannon why she thinks The Laramie Project still resonates the way it does.
“The events of this play took place two decades ago. Matthew's death and the events surrounding it brought to light how we think and feel about homosexuality, class, violence, privileges, rights and the difference between tolerance and acceptance. While people may feel as though we have come to a time and a place where the kind of hate seen in this production does not exist, others in our community and our country can tell you otherwise. The Laramie Project continues to be relevant and tell a story that must be heard. It opens minds and is a reminder to not let this happen anymore. The show offers everybody a chance to discuss the issues surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard.”
The Laramie Project opens at the Community Theatre at Woodbury on Oct 12th and runs to Oct 21st. 'I’m sure it will be a stirring tribute for a friend.