Media Cacophony

This week we turn our attention to a slightly different chronology of texts relevant to The Laramie Project: those offered by the mass media and film.

We will begin with the Matthew Shepard footage (1996) from Tim Kirkland’s Dear Jesse (1998) documentary that I embedded in a previous post.

Then we’ll move to an October 12, 1998 edition of ABC Nightly News with Charlie Gibson anchoring the report about Matthew Shepard’s death. ABC News is the only one of the big-four networks to still have publicly accessible footage of its original reporting on the Shepard case. FYI, you have to sit through a 30-second commercial before the full clip is shown.

After ABC News, we’ll see more footage from 1998, this time captured by the camera of documentary filmmaker Beverly Seckinger and her film Laramie: Inside Out. While the film was not released until 2004, I believe its chronologically accurate to place it nearer to the event itself since the footage was collected during a similar block of time in 1998 and 1999.

Clips from the 2002 Moises Kaufman adapted and directed The Laramie Project HBO movie is next on our list of screenings. I’ve focused my selections on moments that allow us to see another versions of the Laramie physical landscape, a slightly different kind of media cacophony (revised because Kaufman is now working within a filmic vs. theatrical medium), and characters that we have/will see in “real life”. The following is a rather grainy trailer one can find on YouTube that gives a sense of the HBO film:

From Kaufman’s filmic retelling to what Kaufman describes as revisionist history, we’ll watch most of the 2004 ABC News “documentary” produced for their 20/20 program, “The Matthew Shepard Story: Secrets from a Murder.” Host Elizabeth Vargas offers evidence “uncovered by an ABC News investigation,” evidence conveniently corroborated on camera by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the men convicted of consecutive life sentences for Shepard’s murder. The convicted killers and some new (and old) informants from Laramie assert that the crime was the result of their participation in the town’s pervasive but heretofore unspoken methamphetamine “drug culture.” While Vargas is careful not to denigrate the profound and positive impact stories about Shepard’s death, particularly The Laramie Project, have had on dialogue regarding homophobia and hate crimes in the US, she insists that ABC’s “new information” about Shepard’s possible drug use, depression over his HIV+ status, and the rumored bisexuality of one of his killers, should be included in the narrative as it adds “fact” to the “legend” of what happened that night in October 1998.

The final program on the evening’s slate will be a segment from the June 2005 “Setting the Record Straight” episode of the LGBT program In The Life, which debunks the claims of 20/20. From this re-revision of the case, we’ll jump into discussing the 49-page audience guide for The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Company’s own return to Laramie and the company’s stake in confirming and reasserting that they actually did follow Father Roger’s admonition to “say it correct.”

For this post, I thought I’d leave you with a chance to see their trailer for the Ten Years Later script. It features new video footage from interviews with Jedadiah Schultz, Dave O’Malley, Rebecca Hilliker, and Reggie Fluty.

5 thoughts on “Media Cacophony

  1. Something in the ABC Nightly News feature really struck me. A man they interviewed said, “If you’ve ever called someone a fag or a dyke…it’s in you — whatever killed Matthew.” That, I think, is central to this whole situation, especially through the lens of The Laramie Project. Stepping back from the horrible crime and the legal proceedings and all of the cacophony, as you call it, let’s ask why this happened. What about Laramie fosters this? What about Wyoming fosters this? What about the US? The world? It almost seems that many people have to be motivated to not be homophobic. It seems rather backward to me, personally.

  2. Spencer, I think you’re remembering the scene of Father Roger’s homily that was captured in Bev Seckinger’s documentary *Laramie: Inside/Out*. But your point is well taken. Father Roger is counseling a non-gay audience. (I sometimes use queer to describe myself as a way of reclaiming derogatory language and wielding it as a badge of radical pride. But I have friends and colleagues who really abhor that kind of language because of how its used in hate speech contexts.) He’s insisting that his congregation think about how their speech allows them to imagine another person as “other” or “different” and thus less than human.

    The idea that language = violence is hotly contested. The debate usually boils down to one side arguing that words matter, they are key to how we conceptualize our world and the other side arguing that people who are offended by words are thin-skinned and that to police “free” speech is an intrusion of basic liberties. But I think Father Roger is more subtle in his critique. He says if you use this language and don’t think twice you “have it in you … whatever killed Matthew Shepard.” He’s arguing that the ability to dehumanize *begins* in language. It can stop there. It often does. Just name calling. But it also often goes beyond that. And words signal a way of thinking about others that justifies, embraces, promotes their further dehumanization which can, and frequently does, include using violence against them.

    It reminds me of the the “live and let live” rhetoric that the Laramie citizens use in the play as a badge of honor and as a way to argue that no one in their town could have done this or that the town’s culture isn’t responsible for such a heinous act. I’m intrigued by how many times that phrase is used in conjunction with a story about how “taking a poke” at a gay person is also possible/common in Laramie. So there is physical violence that can/has happened but there’s also a culture of “polite violence” where a gay man or lesbian might be *allowed* to be a part of the town, but they will certainly know that “they” better watch their step.

  3. I just found this site via google, and happened upon your discussion of Father Roger’s comments in my film, Laramie Inside Out. I’m so glad to see it being used in this context–I find it especially useful to examine all of these different accounts of the murder and its aftermath (all the ones listed above, and also of course Beth Loffreda’s excellent book, Losing Matt Shepard), to think about the process of trying to make sense of the event and its ongoing historical significance. Are you working on a production of the play currently, or simply studying it in this course? (I cannot access many of the links here without a password).

    Thank you for screening my film.

    Beverly Seckinger
    Laramie Inside Out

    • Beverly,
      What an honor! This is a production blog for a run of The Laramie Project that just closed at Duke University in Durham, NC this past weekend.

      I’m sorry if the site was difficult to navigate. A few pages are password protected because they have some course material and resources that we need be circumspect about where copyright is concerned, but the main tabs — dramaturg blog, student course blog, and the design hub — are all open to the public.

      I’ve actually taught your film in conjunction with The Laramie Project in a class on documentary theater/film (it too had a course blog and the film provided such an important contrast of perspective on events (as well on documentary storytelling) that I convinced my co-teacher (the director of the show, Jeffrey Storer) to include it in the coursework that the cast/crew undertook for this production.

      We watched your film early in the semester as part of a class meeting focused on documentary films/tv programs about Matthew Shepard’s death. It provided us invaluable footage of the “real” people (some of whom also appeared in the play). I think our young actor who played Father Roger was particularly affected by being able to see and hear the man himself, not to mention our costume designer’s choice to focus on his glasses and the priest collar tucked into the shirt pocket. In these subtle yet profound ways, we did our best to, as Father Roger put it in our script, “say it [Laramie] correct.”

      Thank you for finding us and thank you for making such a film that allowed us to see another side of the place and people.

      –Jules (production dramaturg).

  4. Hello Jules,
    Just found this reply to my msg of several months back–thank you! So great to know that the film continues to speak to people in all these different contexts. Thanks for telling me about how it played in your classroom.

    Would you mind possibly writing a short blurb that I could post on the film’s website, about how you found the film useful for teaching documentary film/theater? I would appreciate it enormously.

    My e-mail is

    Hope you’re having a great semester.

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