As the vice president of Parades and Spectaculars for Walt Disney Imagineering Creative Entertainment, and being responsible for the overall creative direction of daytime parades, fireworks displays and nighttime spectaculars at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts worldwide, Steven Davison oversees some sensational, larger-than-life shows.
This weekend, however, he’ll be helming a considerably more intimate production in Long Beach about simply one man whose murder has had far-reaching impact.
Tomorrow, Oct. 12, will be the 15th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay college student who was tortured then tied to a fence and left for dead in a rural area in Laramie, Wyoming. The incident gained international attention and contributed to the passing of hate-crimes legislation, in particular, the 2009 Matthew Shepard Act, which expands the 1969 United States federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Several literary projects have shed light on Shepard’s murder, including the play The Laramie Project, which HBO later produced as a film. The Laramie Project was based on hundreds of interviews with residents of the town and focused on their reactions to his killing.
Davison, however, is taking a different approach to telling the story. Whereas The Laramie Project focused on what occurred after the tragedy, with his play Matthew Shepard: Beyond the Fence, Davison is rewinding to explore the life of Shepard, whom Davison refers to as “Matt.”
“Matthew Shepard: Beyond the Fence is about Matt,” Davison said. “You follow him through his life and his ups and downs. You meet his friends and see what life was like for Matt. Most people don’t know that side of him; they only know the gay, 21-year-old college student that was beaten and tied to the fence. Matt was much more than that, as the play will show.”
Davison is producing and directing the play, which is a musical, as a South Coast Chorale (SCC) production. According to its mission statement, SCC is a performance troupe that uses music to entertain, educate, connect and uplift audiences and its members through performances that are distinguished for LGBT diversity and artistic excellence.
“The show is really a play within a musical,” Davison said. “The music brings additional emotion to each of the scenes. You will laugh, you will cry. It is a very emotional piece, in a good way.”
In researching for and writing the play, Davison reached out to someone who knew Shepard well. “Romaine Patterson, one of Matt’s best friends, is fantastic,” Davison said. “When I approached her a while back with this idea, I asked if she would help answer some of my questions. Romaine had written a book about Matt, [The Whole World Was Watching: Living in the Light of Matthew Shepard], which really gave an interesting look into his life. She was very receptive to help and answer questions as I developed the story. The cast even had a chance to meet her a few weeks ago when she was out in California. She was wonderful and answered all their questions about people she knew so they’d have a better grasp on their characters.”
Patterson will be returning to California this weekend, since Davison is flying her here for his play’s premiere, and she will be participating in a panel discussion on bullying before Saturday’s performance. Also joining the discussion will be Lesléa Newman, author of the book October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard.
Someone else who Davison hopes will join in on the discussion and viewing of the play is local high-school students, to whom SCC is offering free admission. “We are inviting any high-school student who would like to attend the show, [offering them] a complimentary ticket,” Davison said. “We are hoping they will come with an open mind and see that bullying is wrong and that we can overcome it if we all work together. My hope is Matt’s story will inspire them to take action, to be the difference.”
That sentiment was the impetus for Davison’s writing Beyond the Fence in the first place. “I have always been moved by Matt’s story,” he said. “It is very compelling, and I felt it was important to tell his story. It’s been 15 years since Matthew’s passing, and the bullying he endured is still around today. So to produce a play to shed more light on this subject in an anniversary year for Matt was very compelling to me.”
Tanya Tines, who plays Romaine Patterson in Beyond the Fence, said marking the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death is important but she agrees that it also happens to come at the right time. “It seems like bullying is very prevalent in the schools today, especially among middle school and high school, even college-aged kids,” Tines said. “So I think even 15 years ago to today, it’s still a very prevalent issue.”
Rebecca Blumenfeld, a 32-year-old who is vice president of SCC and a member of the chorus for this production, remarked on the relative obscurity of Shepard’s murder despite the prominent attention to it in 1998.“Unfortunately, my demographic and the younger demographic have no idea who Matthew Shepard was,” she said, adding that she herself is an exception, since having family members and friends who are openly gay has always been part of her life. “When Matthew died, I just happened to know about it, but a lot of my friends, whether gay or straight, have no idea who Matthew was. They barely remember 15 years ago– 1998, we were almost graduating high school, we weren’t really involved in politics very much. So they really don’t know where hate crimes started, and I think it really started with Matthew.”
Blumenfeld mentioned the prevalence of bullying today and said she hopes the message that comes across with Beyond the Fence is that it’s not just about Shepard– that people nowadays are singled out for any number of reasons. “I really hope they don’t just see Matthew as a gay 21-year-old, but as someone that they can relate to,” she said. “I hope they learn that this is not just about a tribute to Matthew but [gain] an understanding of what bullying is about and what hate crime is about as well.”
Emily McKibben, an SCC board member, is portraying Roni, an ex-girlfriend of Romaine Patterson. She cites social media as a major factor in the high incidence of bullying today, even among adults. She said the themes of Beyond the Fence are still current. “We can’t judge anybody, no matter if it’s sexual orientation, if it’s race, if it’s social status, we still can’t do that to people,” she said. “And this is just a reminder that this is what could happen to somebody. There are kids out there today that are hanging themselves, committing suicide, being attacked on social media. I think it’s a friendly reminder to pay attention to your children and learn to love each other.”
Matthew Shepard: Beyond the Fence will be performed at the Scottish Rite Event Center, 855 Elm Ave., on Oct. 11, 12, 18 and 19 at 8pm and on Oct. 13 and 20 at 2pm. VIP tickets are $35, and general admission is $25. The Oct. 12 show will feature a gala premiere and reception at 6:30pm; tickets for that evening are $50. Tickets are available at tinyurl.com/sccshepard or at the door before performances. For more information, visit SCCsingers.com .