By Elliott Forrest
Twenty years ago, a young gay man was tied to a fence in rural Wyoming and beaten. His injuries ultimately proved fatal.
When I heard those news reports in the fall of 1998, I shuddered at the brutality and shared in the pain of a nation struggling to understand such a heinous act. Two decades later, the legacy of Matthew Shepard continues to resonate.
In the summer of 2016, I was surprised by a phone call from Rod Caspers, a dear friend from our days together at the University of Texas–Austin Drama Department. He asked if I would be interested in directing a new choral musical work, an oratorio, Considering Matthew Shepard, slated for broadcast on PBS and a subsequent live tour. Rod knew I’d been producing and directing large-scale symphony concerts and other stage works around the country for almost 15 years, and he thought I might be right for this assignment. I accepted on the spot, grateful to be invited to play a role in keeping Matthew’s story alive. His haunting life story had previously been told on stage and screen in The Laramie Project, but as I came to discover, for many, Matthew’s story had started to fade into history.
We started pre-production in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election—a time when many Americans might have thought that hate crimes were becoming a relic of the past. As subsequent events have shown, however, such is not the case. We need to be reminded, time and again, not just that hate exists but also how powerful its antidote, love, can be.
To prepare for the TV shoot, the creative team and I had lots of meetings on the phone and in person. I flew from New York to Austin half a dozen times. But of all those sessions, the most memorable was when I first met the composer, Craig Hella Johnson.
I’ve never met anybody like him—part masterful composer, part spiritual guru. Like a powerful magnet, his enormous musical gift draws other talented people to him. Throughout my decades in show business, I’ve encountered hundreds of supremely talented people. But Craig, more than anyone I’ve ever known, embodies the spirit of gratitude, a theme that would recur like a musical motif throughout our rehearsals and performances.
He was born in 1962 in the Midwest. At some point, he realized he was gay, but at the time his family could not accept his sexual orientation. Not surprisingly, he told me, he felt a deep personal connection to Matthew’s story.
Together, Craig and I pored over the entire score of Considering Matthew Shepard, dissecting every line, discussing every note. He showed me how his oratorio combines contemporary choral singing with other elements drawn from musical theater, country, gospel, and blues. Even more significantly, he explained the inspiration behind many of the key moments in the piece. For example, the section called “Keep It Away From Me” evolved out of a sense—perhaps one many of us have these days—that we just didn’t want to hear any more bad news on TV. In contrast, he explained, “Fire of the Ancient Heart” captures the feeling of being unable to just “keep it away” and instead finding the inner fire needed to convert anger into action.
For most of the classical concerts I’ve created, the composers are dead, long dead. What a gift it was to sit across the table, savoring the opportunity to explore firsthand the composer’s intent, the meaning of each choice, and the musical homages.
My friend Rod had directed the first stage performance of Considering Matthew Shepard. My job was to build on his work by presenting it for a television audience. Because the oratorio does not tell the story in a linear or even a chronological fashion, I wanted to envision camera angles and staging configurations that served our goal of making Craig’s intentions as visually clear as possible. In many cases, we decided to keep some of the beautiful staging choices Rod originally made. For example, the role of Matthew is played by different singers (even groups of singers) in various scenes, but for continuity, whoever is playing him wears the same shirt.
Yes, we have a real fence on the stage. The visual presence of the fence conveys a haunting symbolic power. But, beyond that, the “fence” actually becomes a character in the narrative who sings not just one but several songs. In adapting the staging for television, we chose to begin those songs with an extreme close-up of the fence. This recurring image helps keep the audience both engaged and oriented as the complex story unfolds.
The TV special and most of the live performances during the current tour feature members of Craig’s Grammy-winning vocal ensemble, Conspirare (a name that translates, fittingly, as “breathing together”). Craig lives in Austin, but he assembles these vocalists—some of the best to be found anywhere—from all over the country. When they’re not appearing in Considering Matthew Shepard, you’ll find them performing in operas, appearing on Broadway tours, teaching at universities, and singing in venues around the world. Craig not only has an ear for talent but an eye for diversity. As we worked to plot out the camera shots, I was struck by how the faces in the ensemble reflect what 21st-century America looks like.
However, staging a choral piece with singers who in some cases have little training in either opera or musical theater posed a unique set of challenges. One solution was to create a series of stage pictures that evoke each scene. The stage set consists of a series of platforms, and we explored every imaginable variation of ways to exploit that space (and to deploy our cameras) so as to achieve the most dramatic effects. I also took on the job of designing the visual projections, which I have done for dozens of orchestras from coast to coast. My goal in creating these key still and moving images was to guide the audience through the narrative while reflecting its meaning and conveying its mood.
As our work on the project progressed, we continued to ponder a key question: Why did Matthew’s death become such a national event and resonate with such force?
Researching deeper into the story, I realized that perhaps the main reason is the central image: the fence. Although Matthew’s family rejects any talk of their son’s death as a crucifixion, the profound visual connection to Christ dying on the cross is inescapable. Also, as was the case with the Biblical crucifixion, death did not come quickly. Matthew, severely beaten, was left alone but alive on the fence for 18 hours. His family, along with the nation, conducted mournful vigils. For a time, there was hope that he would survive, but his injuries proved too severe, and after five days, his suffering at last came to an end.
It’s also important to remember the cultural context of Matthew’s time. Gay men and women were beginning to attain a level of acceptance that had been unknown until then. Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian on primetime television in April 1997. The first episode of Will and Grace aired on network television in September 1998. Matthew was killed a month later, a cruel and senseless murder that provoked widespread revulsion. I have come to realize the connection between this cultural evolution, Matthew’s death, the 2009 Hate Crimes Prevention Act (officially named in honor of both Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., a black man lynched by white supremacists), and the passage in 2015 of the Marriage Equality Act. Sometimes we create meaning to accept death; sometimes death results in real change. Such is one of the main messages in Considering Matthew Shepard.
Beyond the social implications of the work, this project has had deep personal meaning for me. The TV version was produced by the PBS station KLRU, which is housed on the campus of my alma mater, University of Texas–Austin. To my surprise and delight, our first production meeting was held in a conference room in a building where I’d attended classes almost 40 years earlier. Among the emotions that swept through me as I entered the building was gratitude to be a part of this enterprise. That sense of gratitude swelled as I worked with our great creative team. Sara Robertson, KLRU’s Senior Vice President for Production and Technology, led the project with grace and skill. Our TV director was Conor McAnally, an industry veteran with a charming Irish brogue who has directed countless episodes of the long-running PBS series Austin City Limits. Craig, Rod, Conor, Sara, and Conspirare’s Managing Director Ann McNair and I enjoyed great chemistry as we worked to turn a choral piece into compelling TV viewing and now the live tour.
I was thrilled to work with such high-end resources. The TV special was filmed in the stunning 2,700-seat Moody Theater using eight cameras, two jibs (camera cranes), and crew of 30. There were 30 singers on stage backed by an ensemble of seven instrumentalists. A massive enterprise by any measure! The special will be broadcast in the fall of 2018.
The shoot and the subsequent live-tour performances have been an emotional experience for all of us involved—including, most importantly, the audiences. Matthew’s parents Dennis and Judy, who appear as characters in the piece, have supported this project from the beginning and have conveyed their gratitude for our work. We, in turn, are grateful for their continued advocacy.
And for myself, I’m thankful for the opportunity to have played a role in conveying the message of this beautiful piece to the wider audience it deserves.
Elliott Forrest is a Peabody Award-winning broadcaster, producer, and director heard weekdays on WQXR in New York.