‘Theatre with a purpose’: Brandon theatre group stages play to bolster LGBTQ community

A play dramatizing the world’s reaction to the brutal murder of a gay man decades ago in the United States was staged to provide a message of hope to southwest Manitoba’s LGBTQ community, its producer says.

The Laramie Projectbrought to the stage by Brandon’s Mecca Productions, follows the story of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and left to die in a homophobic attack in Laramie, Wy., in 1998. His killing sparked outrage around the world and hate crimes legislation in the U.S.

The play, which ran Nov. 3-5 at the recently re-opened Evan’s Theatre, gave the theatre company a chance to bring a positive message to the community of about 50,000, Manitoba’s second largest urban centre, Lisa Vasconcelos says

Two men sit together looking distraught.
Jackie Tran, left, plays Aaron Kreifels, the man who found Shephard’s body, as he is interviewed by a reporter played by Cam Tataryn. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

“Even though the play is about Matthew and that experience, the division and the anger and the two sides … over the past three years we’ve really seen that in our country,” Vasconcelos said. “I mean in the States they’re looking at the rolling back gay rights and gay marriage,” adding that even though the killing “happened decades ago, it’s still just as relevant.”‘

Rehearsals for The Laramie Project began in August, and the cast had stark reminders of why they wanted to bring the play to Brandon, says director Ramey Praznik. The recent protest of a Drag Queen Storytime in Winnipeg and the vandalism of pride flags on a rural driveway belonging to the mother of one reminded them of the importance of the production.

Actors perform on stage wearing 90's clothing.
Tataryn, left, Jennifer Shelton and Peter Buehler perform in The Laramie Project. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The New York City-based Tectonic Theatre Company travelled to Laramie in the aftermath of the murder, spending two years interviewing residents and recreating those conversations verbatim for the stage.

The effect is a play broken down into powerful moments, Praznik says.

“It is theatre for change,” Praznik said. “It is theatre with a purpose … hopefully when you leave the theatre, you’re thinking about how can I be different? What can I do?”

Vasconcelos described the reactions of the audience as visceral: Some feel anger or deep sadness, but there are also moments of laughter.

“It is very emotional because they direct their monologues right to us,” Vasconcelos said. “Sometimes it’s really hard to hear.”

An actor wearing a ball cap and backpack appears on stage.
Mitchell Wedge plays a university theatre student. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Praznik believes conversations the production will spark are important.

“We aren’t a problem if we’re trying to have these conversations,” Praznik said, “we’re doing it out of love. I think that it isn’t impolite to try and talk to people about the things that they don’t understand.”

One of the strongest messages to come out of the play, Vasconcelos says, is the hopeful idea of creating a community where every person feels safe to be the person they are, loved for whom they are and loving whom they want.

“It’s pretty amazing how Matthew’s experience changed the world really, and brought this [LGBTQ hate crimes] to the forefront,” she said.

Purposeful decision

Releasing the play near Transgender Awareness Week, Nov. 13-19 was a purposeful decision to be part of the conversation of acceptance and support, Praznik says.

Mecca partnered with Brandon Pride and Brandon’s Sexuality Education Resource Centre for the show. All profits are being split among the organizations.

Those funds will help Brandon Pride host more events year-round, vice-chair Leila Praznik says.

A play such as The Laramie Project is significant because it is a platform to share LGBTQ history and culture with Brandonites.

“It’s important to pay attention to that stuff and really, really try and prevent it by making our community more visible and more accepted within the wider community of the city as a whole,” Praznik said.

The Laramie Project is an essential play, not only for what it means for the gay community, but also for the transgender community, she says.

Four actors appear on stage sitting on chairs wearing 90's style clothing.
Jackie Tran playing a DJ, left, appears on stage with Rylee Kaye, James Warnez and Rebecca Porteous. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

It’s November premiere was fitting given the upcoming Transgender Day of Remembrance, Praznik says.

A remembrance service will be held at Brandon’s Knox United Church on Nov. 18 for those killed for being transgender around the world this year. A candlelight vigil will be held on Nov. 19.

“This play should hopefully not only expose …all the injustice that still happens to gay, lesbian, bisexual and so on people in the world, but also our transgender and otherwise gender-diverse population,” Praznik said.

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