CHRISTOPHER MARTELL, a junior at New Kent High School in Virginia (Thespian Troupe 7644), lay awake one night after rehearsal for The Laramie Project. The play examines the murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student. Every cast member represents a real person: either an individual involved with or closely impacted by the crime, or an artist from Tectonic Theater Project, which developed the play.

“I did really terrible at rehearsal that day,” said Martell, who’d been cast to play, among other characters, Dr. Rulon Stacey, the former CEO of Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., where Shepard was treated. “Like I was bad bad. I didn’t even know my lines yet, and I couldn’t go to sleep, because it was all I could think about.”

Martell realized he needed to take a new approach. He remembered the words of his troupe director, Victoria Kesling Councill, reproving him and other castmates for forgetting their lines: “These are real people’s words you’re saying.”

That night, Martell decided to reach out to those people, looking online for email addresses or other contact information. Around midnight, he saw Stacey’s LinkedIn profile and emailed the address he found. Stacey replied the next morning. They corresponded a few times before setting up a call with the cast and creative team, who asked questions about events informing the play.

“After that, the show felt a lot more real to me,” said Martell. “You don’t normally get that kind of opportunity. You can’t exactly speed-dial Macbeth if you have a question about what was happening in a scene.”

Thespian Christopher Martell and Dr. Rulon Stacey at the New Kent High School 2019 International Thespian Festival performance of The Laramie Project.
Thespian Christopher Martell and Dr. Rulon Stacey at the New Kent High School 2019 International Thespian Festival performance of The Laramie Project. Photo by Victoria Kesling Councill.

Those interactions so deeply inspired the students that Martell invited Stacey to attend their Chapter Select performance of The Laramie Project at the 2019 International Thespian Festival. Impressed by the students’ engagement, Stacey coordinated business appointments in Nebraska for the same week and flew out to see the show — but due to a flight delay, he narrowly missed the performance.

Still, Stacey was able to spend time with the cast and creative team in the dressing room of University of Nebraska’s Howell Theatre after the show. They were joined by Zach Schneider, chapter director of Wyoming Thespians, who attended public school and college with Matthew Shepard and who knows other family and community members now depicted as characters in The Laramie Project.

“I would have stayed for hours asking questions and just talking, if they both didn’t have busy schedules,” said Martell, adding, “If I didn’t cry so much onstage [as Dr. Stacey], I probably would’ve cried more in the dressing room.”

Though disappointed to miss the performance, Stacey admits he doesn’t “actually like going to the play. I tried to make it because Chris is relentless. But it’s hard to watch because Tectonic got it so right. They got the words, the emotion, everything.”

Thespian cast member Tara Smith asked Stacey, “Is it weird to see children, or even adults, playing you — like seeing this awkward teenage kid playing you?”

“I know I’m a bit awkward,” Martell chimed in, “but I tried really hard to do you justice.”

“I can tell. I appreciate that,” Stacey reassured him. “And, yes, it is weird.”


When Troupe 7644 picked The Laramie Project, they weren’t certain the administration would approve. “We are the only high school in our school system, and we are rural,” Kesling Councill explained. “The community is also largely conservative and Republican in nature.”

Luckily, a one-act competition through the non-ITS Virginia High School League was approaching. “Usually when we’re going to do things that are a little bit more risqué, we can get away with doing them there, because we only do a 35-minute blip of it,” said Kesling Councill.

To their relief, their principal sent back the script with a sticky note: “Approved. Powerful.” Kesling Councill sat down with student director Haley Wagner and fellow senior Billy Bowery during summer 2018 to figure out how to trim the three-hour script to 35 minutes — in collaboration with the licensing company, Dramatists Play Service. “It was insane,” Wagner recalled, “because there’s so much.”

In the end, they followed the same technique that Tectonic had used to develop The Laramie Project from piles of interviews. “We looked at the themes of the show and decided which we wanted to focus on,” Bowery explained. “We ended up picking the theme of hope — that there’s still hope that something can change. Hope was our guiding principle.”

To prepare the students to portray this small-town tragedy turned national event, Kesling Councill took them to a production of The Laramie Project by Richmond Triangle Players, followed by a talkback with the cast (arranged by Breezy Potter, a New Kent alum and former State Thespian Officer working in the box office). The cast gave the students a box of rubber wristbands inscribed with “Erase Hate,” and the Thespians sold those wristbands — and later hosted a Mr. New Kent male pageant fundraiser — to raise money for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Under Kesling Councill’s guidance, the students also watched videoclips, including Stacey’s press updates as the spokesperson for the hospital.

“I remember watching clips of you giving a medical update a few days before we took this to [the Virginia Thespian Festival], and it really moved me,” Martell told Stacey in the Howell dressing room. “I was like, I need to do better.”

When Stacey heard what Kesling Councill had said about honoring the words of real people, he thanked her. “I get called a lot from people who are playing me in the play, and I always take time to talk to them,” he said. “I feel like, if they’re taking time to get it right, I want to help them. Because those words are exactly my words, without exception, even ‘braindeadness’ or whatever it is I said. Every time I hear that I think, ‘I should have picked a different word.’”

For Schneider, that imperfect, human rawness is what made Stacey such a compelling figure. A Mormon, Stacey has theological misgivings about homosexuality that in no way diminish his compassion. Delivering the news of Shepard’s death on national television, Stacey was memorably moved to tears. Following that press conference, Stacey received considerable hate mail, all of which he donated to the archives of University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.

“I always appreciated that emotion,” Schneider told him. “We often see, during a press update, just ‘Here’s the facts.’ That this affected you on that level at that time period …” Schneider recalled that, in the 1990s, stereotypes of homosexuality seemed hung up on drag queens and pride parades. “This was the first time where it was like, oh, that’s just a kid — that’s my brother, that’s my cousin, that’s the shrimpy kid in the grade below me that I ran around recess with because we didn’t fit in with the kids playing football. That human reaction was one of those moments where those who always thought that this was a distasteful affliction could show some acceptance.”


The Thespians took this show to their state one-act competition (for the first time in 20 years), then to the Virginia Thespian Festival (for which they extended the show to 45 minutes), where the production won the troupe their first Chapter Select trip to ITF. There they performed Laramie to a full house while a local church group picketed outside.

“I genuinely feel this is a testament to the passion our students had for this show’s message,” said Kesling Councill, for whom “LGBTQ issues are of great importance.”

Dr. Rulon Stacey meets backstage with the team from New Kent High School’s production of The Laramie Project. Photo by Victoria Kesling Councill.

In their dressing room chat, Stacey shared that his hate mail came from “both sides of the issue. I had someone call me and say, ‘Do you cry for your natural-born patients or just the faggots?’ But I also had someone write a letter and say, ‘I’m a physician from Miami, and I know that if Matthew had not been gay, you would have done this, this, and this. Curse you forever.’ And that … that angered me quite a bit.”

However, one group that never questioned Stacey’s dedication or grief is Matthew Shepard’s family, particularly his parents, Dennis and Judy, who have become Stacey’s lifelong friends.

In fact, Stacey contacted the couple about his trip to ITF to see Martell and his classmates perform The Laramie Project — and to resume banter on the classic rivalry between them regarding Dennis’ alma mater (University of Wyoming) and Stacey’s (Brigham Young University).

“I finally got in touch with Dennis and Judy last night,” said Stacey in the Howell dressing room. “They told me they wanted to thank you for your effort to do this right.”

Stacey also shared playful text-taunts between him and Dennis, who realized that he had misfiled Stacey’s new phone number under his wife’s name. Stacey recalled that Dennis had texted, “‘So you intentionally gave me the wrong number, because you were so jealous that I graduated from a topnotch university?’ and I replied, ‘You’re right, it was a test. A graduate from any other university would have figured it out in half the time.’ That’s us, and that’s one thing that never changes about Dennis and Judy. We disagree on … everything. But we love each other. We love each other. We went through so much.”

Stacey recounted the night of Matthew’s death, how the hospital called just as he arrived home Sunday night — the first time he’d been home since Thursday — to report that Matthew’s blood pressure was dropping. Stacey rushed to the hospital, where the Shepards had been staying in a room prepared for them.

Matthew was pronounced dead on October 12, 1998, six days after his attack, at 12:53 a.m., and Stacey’s memorable press conference occurred just hours later.

“I had an interview with Katie Couric scheduled for 5 a.m., and I didn’t know much about PR issues, but I knew that it wasn’t fair to everyone else to break it there, so we started to call everybody for that news conference at 4 a.m.,” Stacey said. “I thought about my own kids, I thought about Judy — and I’d been up all night, I’d been up essentially for three days. It was an emotionally trying time, because I never really knew Matt, but I knew those parents were brokenhearted, and I knew his brother, Logan, was brokenhearted.”

A couple of hours after the press meeting, Stacey went back to the Shepards’ hospital room and found the staff had cleared it. “The only thing left was a TV on one of those portable stands and Dennis standing there, watching it. By the luck of the draw, I walked in as he was watching my press conference. I felt shame. I said, ‘Dennis, I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry. I did the best I could.’ And he turned around, threw his arms around me, and said, ‘We will never forget you. You have done us proud.’”


The Laramie Project premiered in 2000 and remains one of the most produced plays in the U.S. According to Tectonic, more than 30 million people have seen the play, which inspired a 2002 HBO film and a 2009 companion piece, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (both also directed by Moisés Kaufman and written by him and other members of Tectonic).

These days, according to Schneider, Shepard’s case continues to stir tension among residents of Laramie, Casper, and surrounding communities. “In Wyoming now, the main thing people seem to focus on when Matt’s name comes up, if you look at Facebook pages or local media, it’s ‘Oh, he was just a druggie who got what he deserved,’” said Schneider, referencing an alternative narrative developed by a 2013 book that claims the murder resulted from a botched meth deal. In October 2018, Julie Heggie, the coroner who conducted Shepard’s autopsy, told Wyoming Public Media that Shepard had no methamphetamine in his body at the time of his attack.

“Judy says, ‘There are three people who know what happened that night. Two of them are in jail and insist they killed Matt because he came on to them. The other one is dead,’” Schneider said. “People can come up with any story they want, but those guys haven’t changed their story.”

Still, Schneider has noticed another shift, particularly at Natrona County High School, which both he and Shepard attended and where Schneider now directs Thespian Troupe 1, the first ITS troupe chartered in 1929.

“You guys focused on the throughline of hope,” Schneider told the Thespians of New Kent High School. “And the hopeful thing is that, when I was in high school, Matt wasn’t out. At that time, you didn’t do that. But now boys walk down the halls holding hands. Girls walk down the halls holding hands. We have several transgender students who are open. That gives me a lot of hope. But I’m sorry that you still have work to do, because a lot of people feel emboldened in their hate the last few years. So, thank you. Thank you for telling Matt’s story and helping shed light on the fact that it’s been 20 years and we still have a long way to go. It’s really inspiring to see that this play continues.”

This story appeared in the October 2019 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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