By Jenna Purcell
Arts Reporter

Seven figures approach a small stage and proceed to reenact a funeral. As the priest leads the mourning congregation in prayer, a defiant man steps into the light, a sign in his hand reading “GOD HATES FAGS.”

The story behind this outward showing of hatred is that of Matthew Shepard, a student in the Midwest who was murdered because he was openly gay.

Santa Cruz-based theater company Pisces Moon Productions takes on the challenge of telling the stories of those who Shepard left behind with its production of “The Laramie Project,” running through Oct. 19 at the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre.

The story begins Oct. 6, 1998, near the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard was found robbed, beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. In the year and a half following Shepard’s death, actors from the Tectonic Theatre Project, a New York-based theater company, traveled to Laramie and conducted over 200 interviews with its citizens. These interviews were then translated into a full-length play, titled “The Laramie Project.”

Originally, the many members of the theater company who interviewed those in Laramie played the parts of the interviewees. Every word written in the script came directly from these interviews.

The Santa Cruz production of the play, like the original, calls on nine performers to portray over 80 different roles, from Shepard’s academic adviser at school to the bartender who waited on Shepard the night of the attack.

For Susan Myer, director of the show and co-founder of Pisces Moon, this production involved an extensive amount of research on the company’s part.

“Our intention was to make those characters as real to us as they had been to the Tectonic Theater Project,” Myer said.

The necessary research and character development involved gathering information about those portrayed in the piece through news articles, legal statements, and recordings, she said. Myer then met privately with each cast member to create parallels between the character and the actor.

Nate Robinson, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz and a member of Pisces Moon, described the process.

“You really have to get into some of the moments these characters lived through,” Robinson said.

Among the many characters he portrays, Robinson had to especially focus on Aaron McKinney, the student who discovered Shepard on the fence.

“At some point in my rehearsals, I really had to see Matthew’s body in my mind’s eye,” he said. “Finding this body really shattered this kid’s innocence.”

Although this transformation was exhausting, and sometimes disturbing for some of the actors, Myer noted that it often led to surprising conclusions as well.

“[The process] helps build empathy,” Myer said. “The actors find something in their characters to love, however despicable their deeds might be.”

Cast member Robert Colter, who plays Matthew’s father and the deeply homophobic Reverend Fred Phelps, praised the play.

“It is so well-crafted,” Colter said. “The emotional intensity … the emotional roller coaster with so many different roles — it’s like actor candy. I’ve never done a [play] quite like this.”

The cast felt a strong moral obligation to commit to the utmost accuracy, given that the script comes straight from real life.

“There’s definitely a weight on your shoulders,” said Marc A. Nicholson, who gives a powerful performance as one of Matthew’s killers, Aaron McKinney. “It’s intellectual, but it’s real. I’m not playing a caricature.”

Cast member Jasmine Schlafke reiterated this obligation to reality.

“It’s about the level of integrity,” Schlafke said. “We want to honor who they are. This is not a character — it’s a real person.”

“The Laramie Project” is being performed through Oct. 19 at the Actors’ Theatre, 1001 Center St.