Student play depicts small town murder

Senior Brent Stansell’s thesis research and involvement with a GW production led him to a Wyoming town changed by hate. The English major traveled for a week in January to Laramie, Wy., the site of the 1998 murder of 21-year-old gay student Matthew Shepard, to prepare for his role and thesis.

Stansell will perform in the Department of Theatre and Dance’s “The Laramie Project,” by Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Project. The 2000 play is based on Shepard’s death and its effect on the people of Laramie. The show will run from Wednesday until March 2 in the Dorothy Marvin Betts Theatre.

In addition to being part of the eight-member cast of “The Laramie Project,” Stansell received $500 from the University’s Enosinian Scholars program, an honors grant program for undergraduate research. The grant enabled him to visit Laramie to conduct interviews.

While Stansell’s thesis focuses on how the popularity of “The Laramie Project” affects the social culture surrounding it, he said the scope of his research changed after he arrived in Laramie.

“I brought my tape recorder with me, but when I got there I was very uncomfortable about taking it out,” Stansell said. “I felt like I was going to get more out of this trip by listening to these people telling me their stories than sitting there with a tape recorder and furiously taking notes. I would get more out of this trip as a concerned person rather than (as) an academic looking to get quotes.”

He interviewed 11 people while in Laramie, including some who are represented in the play. Stansell said that the people he spoke with were receptive to his questions and presence and extremely generous.

He said he first heard about “The Laramie Project” when the HBO movie based on the play premiered last year at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

“I knew the play was popular, I knew there was a movie about it, and so I knew there was going to be stuff to write about it,” he said.

An online journal of Stansell’s trip is on the Department of Theatre and Dance’s Web site at www.gwu.edu/~theatre.

Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard’s, will be speaking and taking audience questions after the Friday and Saturday performances.

Following Shepard’s death, Patterson became an activist for gay and lesbian equality and hate crime prevention. She has worked with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Shepard was taken to a field in Laramie on Oct. 6, 1998, beaten by two men, tied to a fence and left to die. His body was found the next morning and he died five days later.

The court delivered a guilty verdict in the two trials for Shepard’s murder.

“I think ‘The Laramie Project’ is the project I am most proud of being a part of,” said Patterson, who grew up in Wyoming. “Everyone can find someone they can relate to in the play. Hopefully the play will create a dialogue with the audience and have an impact.”

Stansell said the ensemble members of GW’s production understand they are telling a story through people’s personal experiences and transcribed interviews.

“In this piece, we are telling a story through the voices of the main

characters,” Stansell said, “so it is important to capture the essence and

spirit of who these people are.”

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