On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21 year old college student, was beaten, tortured, and left to die on a fencepost near Laramie, Wyoming. He died six days later at the hospital.

Earlier in the evening of October 6, Shepard made the acquaintance of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at The Fireside Bar in Laramie, who invited Shepard to drink and chat with them. Shortly after, the group decided that McKinney and Henderson would drive Shepard home. Instead, they drove him to a remote area outside city limits, where they proceeded to tie Matthew Shepard to a fence post, rob him, pistol-whip him, and torture him. Then they left him there to die.

Shepard’s body was found 18 hours later by a cyclist, Aaron Kreifels. He was brought to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and put on full life support in intensive care. He suffered from severe brainstem damage, fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear, and lacerations around his head, face, and neck. He remained in a coma for five days, while candlelight vigils were held around the world. On October 12, 1998, at 12:53 am, Matthew Shepard was pronounced dead.

Much of the media coverage about the case was focused on Shepard’s homosexuality and the evidence of a hate crime. Witnesses claimed that they saw McKinney and Henderson pretend to be gay in order to lure Shepard out of the bar. The case brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation, particularly since at that time, neither Wyoming state laws nor the United States’ federal laws included sexual and gender identity in their protections . Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson would each be caught, put on trial, convicted of Shepard’s murder, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences each. Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, became a LGBTQ activist and founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation in her son’s name, dedicated to “[replacing] hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance.” In October 2009, the United States enacted the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

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Soon after Matthew Shepard’s death, Moisés Kaufman, founder and member of the Tectonic Theater Project, proposed to the company that they create a theatre piece about Shepard’s murder. The group traveled to Laramie six times over the course of the following year and a half, conducting more than 200 interviews with the town’s residents. From these interviews, as well as documents the group attained and journal entries of the company members, The Laramie Project was created. In writing the script, Moisés Kaufman was aided by: Leigh Fondakowski (head writer); Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, and Stephen Wangh (associate writers); Amanda Gronich, Sarah Lambert, John McAdams, Maude Mitchell, Andy Paris, Barbara Pitts, and Kelli Simpkins (dramaturgs).

The Laramie Project was premiered by the Denver Center Theatre Company in association with the Tectonic Theater Project in Denver, Colorado, on February 19, 2000. It was directed by Moisés Kaufman assisted by Leigh Fondakowski, with scenic design by Robert Brill, lighting design by Betsy Adams, original music composed by Peter Golub, sound design by Craig Breitenbach, costume design by Moe Schell, videos and slides designed by Martha Swetzoff, and the project advised by Stephen Wangh. The cast was comprised of members of the Tectonic Theatre Project: Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, and Kelli Simpkins, all of whom played multiple roles.

The play opened Off-Broadway at the Union Square Theatre in New York City on May 18, 2000.The original cast and creative team was retained from the Denver production.

The Laramie Project has been performed in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Across the US, it has been performed by regional theatres, universities, and high schools. The Matthew Shepard Foundation offers help and resources to non-profit theatres and educational and religious institutions wishing to perform the play. In 2002, HBO produced a film version of the piece written for the screen and directed by Kaufman.

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