Fight Back, Love Back, Art Back for Matthew Shepard in the Theatre

The Players

One can repaint a stage after years of wear and tear, but what makes the space special is that nothing can erase those who have trafficked upon its surface. Nothing can take away the ghosts of footsteps that have stood, learned, and loved there. Some names are meant to echo throughout the these hallowed spaces forever.

One of these: Matthew Shepard — son, brother, public figure, victim of hate, and, within his lifetime, a lover of the theatre.

Those events at the end of 1998, branded into the memory of Americans of that generation, were more than mere crimes resulting in the death of a young adult. Homophobic violence enacted by two small town perpetrators, out of the blue and yet known all too well, stole the voice and life of college-aged Matt, under the impression he had finally found home. This hate crime, while it wasn’t the first of the year, decade, or century, marked a prominent start of whistle-blowing the hate crimes and queer-phobia that locked closet doors.

Image of the fence Matt was found tied to, courtesy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

As per usual, regarding the handling and aftermath of notorious crimes, facts and individuals involved were reduced to names and dates. It took years to uncover the details that made Matt a whole, complex, considerate person. It was near-19 years after his death and months after following his story and participating in his legacy that I learned Matt frequented the stage as a student.

As a student artist myself, this was another link in the ever-growing chain of connections between me and Matt.

A segment about Matt’s affinity for the stage is featured in the award-winning documentary Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine by Michele Josue. Matt’s schoolmate narrates during a slideshow of photos of Matt in costume, in the moments all performers share: life-shaping magic, making the stage lights seem a little brighter, all the while under the guise of someone else. He began his junior year of high school at The American School in Switzerland when his family relocated to Saudi Arabia for his father’s work. TASIS is where he met Michele, studied languages, and utilized his Thespian identity. Onstage was his and Michele’s safe haven — where they felt strong, powerful, “a little bit more alive.”

Post-graduation, he had enrolled at Catawba College in Salisbury, NC, aiming for a life in theatre. His educational journey reached an undetected end at University of Wyoming, as he tapped into his great interest of political science. Then the first-year student visited a bar, notably welcoming to those who were gay, and was kidnapped by two men of similar age. Beaten and tied to a fence on the outskirts of Wyoming, he was never to see his home or family again.

The Inciting Incident

Concluded by journalist and activist Jason Marsden in the essay, “The Legacy of Matthew Shepard,” it’s a play that can be credited as “the fullest extant record” of the societal reaction to the crime. Company members of pioneering theatrical group, the Tectonic Theatre Project, traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to gather materials for assembling a play that would convey the enormity of this event with honesty and transparency. Using found texts and transcripts, the company members composed a feat of structure — The Laramie Project — a piece with the power to blow any reader or observer away time and time again. The players, showcasing the good, bad, and the ugly of the town’s reply, leaves the ramming actions of passing comment to the moments before curtain. Indirectly proving the sentiments of art imitating life and vice versa, the dialogues and monologues are what one would find spilling out of the mouths of any American hailing from any county. But what are found in Laramie are remarkably poignant moments that silently pose multiple questions sounding off in readers and audiences member’s heads. And as a theatre piece, it kindles onstage reactions and realizations that one can’t replay on their TV screen as spots on the news program.

Laramie is regarded as one of the most respected and produced modern American plays. It’s with confidence one can conclude that most members of this generation have heard Matthew’s name for the first time in a theatre. That’s what brought me to his story. School, community, professional productions, even English classes have challenged town citizens to no longer blink at the rampant violence motivated by hate and prejudice. The mounting toll of hate crime victims no longer seems like a detached number from oneself when they no longer view their town as Laramie initially viewed theirs — a place where, when it comes to hate crime perpetrators, “we don’t grow children like that here.”

The Denouement

The world seems incoherent and upside down. We don’t have human words to succinctly communicate the fear. And then, the artists go to work.

Amidst the legal proceedings and journalistic frenzy, empathetic and kindred hearts ache. Fingers reach for recorders, pens, and paintbrushes. Poems, films, essays, books, pieces of visual art have been created out of love and in honor of victims of hate, and a number of these are in the name of Matt. In the time following the occurrence, we would not let this end in the tragedy of inaction. We spoke the language we knew. In the absence of his laughter, we’ll sing another line, write another verse, and step onstage another night to give him the bows he deserved.

Speaking as an LGBTQ+ teen and artist — the queer community is the keeper of the keys to arts culture. We cannot thrive without these outlets, and truth be told, they wilt without our voice. Music and art are ingrained into our traditions of coping and celebration. As minorities, we’re naturally more inclined to have special skills as alternate expression, and somehow, the arts have not yet gained a seat in worldwide priorities, much like the lack of care for our community’s well-being or mental health. And with this primary ownership, we give proper tribute to Matt and all at risk of intolerance. We stand with and among each other; there’s no translation required. We share the fire within our hearts and questions in our minds the minute we are born queer. Journalist Adam Goldman, in the early hours of November 9th, as America burned blue and red, tweeted that queer people must go to do our work — love and anger. As a theatre artist, I will forever strive to remain awake in these troubled times, shining light on those stories reduced to bullet-points but truthfully deserving residence in the artistic canon.

Throughout his life, Matt wished to make a difference. I do not hesitate to believe that the arts present in his time instilled a want for progress and breakthroughs. The arts charged him to climb a ladder to career of advocacy. His youth was stolen. So we’ll carry it out. Matthew’s legacy is a generation of activists. He is creating space for seasons of theatre for social change. We wish nothing more than that he were here to lead us. Matthew’s name is repeated in two different kinds of courtrooms, both full of tears, decisions, and precedents. The kind I’ve dedicated my life to is a craft of commemoration, beauty, and anything but make-believe.

Performers can shout and sign the most controversial words onstage, but we will remain living in the state of safety that makes siblings of every visitor on that floor. The onstage freedom Matt lived for.

My Epilogue

In the summer before my senior year, queer theatre activist are the first three words I use to describe myself. And I finally feel okay with wielding the word activist. I pick up the pieces from junior year — the time in school where everything changed for him and where everything changed for me. Mourning’s Matt loss is not finished for me or the rest of my community, in a world in which hate crimes ravage every false sense of security. I begin Phase 2 and 3 of an initiative I never believed would make it past my Google Docs. I, daily, agree with the notion that soulmates can be things too, something housed on Wordpress and Gmail, and now flying to stages across the world. I glance down the list of groups who’ve agreed to register with my Laramie Project Project, performing their own Laramie in honor of the 49 Pulse shooting victims. With fifteen states and four countries on board, and plans to reserve three performances for the survivors, victims’ families, and victims’ significant others, I count up — three more groups to go.

I take Matt’s two loves, theatre and activism, and try to make a life of them.

I check my email for updates on the Bear To Make A Difference gala in Colorado, the catalyst for my family’s trip to the most west we’ve ever been. I search for the perfect purple dress to wear on that purple stage as I accept a 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award this October. And if I had to channel my playwriting skills and try my hand at describing how these actions make me feel, in mere human words, I’d fail. I would need a stage, a song, a dance, a painting, a whole play to express how I will never reach the true end of this mission to keep Matthew’s soul in the hearts of worldwide artists. Matt is with me, but that is not enough to be satisfied. I want to share the purpose he’s given my life with all the players of the world’s stage.

Matt, we’ll keep making homes for you. We will write you and your ancestors into the story: the theatregoers, the stage lovers, the footprints we’ll never be able to brush away.

(Note: Many thanks to Sara Grossman for assistance with construction and required resources!)

About the Author:

Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a proud attendee of a performing arts high school (her second home), Public Relations Officer of Thespian Troupe 5480, and self-proclaimed Spotify-playlist-queen, Alyssa strives for a future career in playwriting, performance, and theatre advocacy. She is the leader of the international arts-activism initiative The Laramie Project Project, which aims to dedicate performances/staged readings of the acclaimed play in honor of current hate crime victims. Phase 1 of the project united 49 Laramies in 2017 in honor of the 49 Pulse victims. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue. These projects are just too often lost in the bustle of ticket sales and press releases.