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Matthew Shepard; Republican Gov Debate Review; Tom Isern; Prairie Plates

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25-years ago last fall, Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead in Laramie, Wyoming. His death sparked legislation about hate crimes and protections for gay people. Concordia College is hosting a series of events and art projects about the legacy of his death. We visit with Dr. Michael Culloton, one of the main organizers of the campus wide conversation. Concordia

News Director Dave Thompson reviews the North Dakota Republican Gubernatorial debate held last night in the Prairie Public studios.

In his Plains Folk Essay, Power of Printed Thought, Tom Isern explores the early 20th-century tradition of "book showers" in North Dakota, where club women initiated community gatherings to stock local libraries with donated books. Isern vividly describes these events, emphasizing their dual role in enhancing literary collections and strengthening community bonds. Through his narrative, Isern highlights the transformative power of literacy and communal effort, inviting reflection on their value in contemporary society.

Rick Gion and Prairie Plates. This week: wings!

Transcript of interview with Dr. Michael Culloton:

the joy in that which is left behind, and this piece presents a lot of difficult moments. We recognize the circumstances of Matthew's murder. We recognize his murder as a young gay college student.

What moved me as I started dreaming about this back in January of 2023, as I start to think about what does the next year look like, I knew that we were coming up on this 25th anniversary, and I just had this idea that if I did, considering Matthew Shepard, I wonder if my colleagues in theater would do the Laramie Project, which is a stage play that explores the tragic events surrounding Matthew's death, and I wonder if there's art elements. As a college, we have an art department and students, and sure enough, we will have an art exhibit, and we'll have a moment on Saturday for the community to join together and to sing together.

We think about singing in funerals and amazing graces and when the saints go marching in, and music brings us together, and that's always been one of the great powers about it, so we felt that one of the things we wanted to do was invite the community into our singing. So we'll do a community sing event at two o'clock in the Centrum on Saturday. And we will invite anybody in the community who would like to come and sing with us. We're gonna use a resource called the Justice Choir Songbook, and we'll be singing for other humans. We'll fight other fights that day, so to say, and sing and explore how we can be the best humans that we can be and show love to each other and go ahead and disagree, but show the love that we are capable of giving to other people.

And that's what I'm excited to do this coming weekend through the stage play that opens on Thursday night all the way through this capstone on Sunday at two o'clock in Memorial Auditorium when all 200 singers and a band, pit orchestra kind of thing, if you will, an ensemble of faculty and staff join together to present Considering Matthew Shepard, a work that is painful and a work that is optimistic and tells us a little bit about what we need to do to treat each other well.

Ashley Thornberg

Let's visit a little bit of the optimistic end of things. This is Considering Matthew Shepard, Ordinary Boy, and this is, like you mentioned, inspired by words from his own journal.

(music clip)

I love theater, I love good friends, I love succeeding, I love pasta, I love jogging, I love walking and feeling good. I love Europe and driving and music and helping and smiling and Charlie and Jeopardy. I love boogies and eating and positive people and pasta and driving and walking and jogging and dancing and learning and I love myself.

I love singing and smiling and learning and being myself. I love theater, I love theater. And I love the stage.

Oh, I love the stage, oh, I love the stage, oh, I love the stage, oh, I love the stage, oh, I love the stage, oh, I love such an audience.

Ashley Thornberg

Before we introduced this piece, when you were talking about it, you said, we'll be singing his words and I can't help but notice that your voice changed dramatically when you said that we'll be, you know, it was almost like you were fighting back something that was coming up. What does it mean to you as a performer to be responsible for somebody's words?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Well, that's a great responsibility and it's a great enough responsibility to be in charge of trying to interpret a composer's music. And when you throw into the musical mix that you're also responsible for representing somebody's own words, it becomes this great, great honor. This is a super honor.

And I should say, Matthew's words aren't the only words that we sing throughout this piece. We're gonna sing words of a lot of different people who were involved in this tragic event. His mother's represented in the piece.

Aaron and Russell are represented in this piece. And Matthew, of course.

Ashley Thornberg

And even the protesters.

Dr. Michael Culloton

There were protesters at Matthew's funeral. And they were one of the worst parts of the story. When you think about the pain that a family is going through on the day that they have to bury their child, and there's the Westboro Baptist Church protesters.

And Craig Hella Johnson is the composer of this piece. And he himself identifies as a gay man. And he made a tough decision.

He represented the protesters in the piece. And there's a movement called Protester. And it's really one of the tougher moments in the piece of music because the choir is asked to take on the character of the protesters.

And so some of the language that they sing comes right off of the signs that were being held. And the signs that were being held did not hold upon them many of the words that our students want to say out loud. And we practiced that movement for a long time, just doing do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do.

You know, just syllables. Not even using the words. And I remember we were in recital hall.

And I'm glad to say it's only about 80 seconds of a 90-minute work that we're encountering this. But I remember standing in the middle of recital hall and saying, okay, it's time to put the text with this. And we had talked about it.

We had given ample time for students to study the text. And I remember just saying, let's take 15 seconds to just breathe and prepare how you want to prepare or need to prepare to dive into this, to sing words that we hope to never sing ever again in any other context. It's a hard moment, that movement about the protester.

But we had the pleasure of having Craig Hella Johnson, the composer, with us via Zoom on the big screens in the recital hall last week. And our students are curious about his decision to include this in the oratorio. Craig had been asked that probably hundreds of times since he's written the work.

And what he explained to us was that if we're going to sing a final chorus about how we need to be the ones, all of us, to help heal the world, no matter what the prejudice is that we're trying to heal or to bring understanding to, then we need to contextualize the need for that. And I can think of it in another scenario too, because one of my other hats that I wear, I'm a church choir conductor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, and we just celebrated the season of Easter. Well, Easter Sunday means a lot more because two days before that, you go through Good Friday.

And sometimes we need that pain to contextualize the joy or the hope that is felt. And so really that's why Craig included and made the tough decision to include that moment in the piece, in the movement called Protester. Powerful choice.

Ashley Thornberg

You are working at Concordia, which is a Christian college. It's a Lutheran college specifically, and for many Christians, homosexuality is a grave sin. Did you get any pushback from the higher-ups?

Dr. Michael Culloton

No pushback whatsoever, only great support. I'm not inviting our listeners. They're welcome to send me emails.

In my time, since we've announced this and even performed some of the piece, I've received exactly one email asking us not to do it. One is, that's about right, because we're going to do this.

Ashley Thornberg

Why was it important to your faith to explore this?

Dr. Michael Culloton

I do surround myself with college-age people on a daily basis. And some of those students identify in the same LGBTQ plus community that Matthew identified in. And I think that it is important that all of my students know that I love them and that we love them as a college and that we welcome them as they are into our time together.

And that's what I wanted them to know, and that's why I wanted to pay tribute to this anniversary. These students that I work with, and I love it. It is an absolute dream situation that I find myself in getting to work with creative young people at this point in their life.

But none of them were alive when Matthew Shepard was murdered. And I think he's an important person to know about and we have this opportunity to sing of him and to take the stage on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday with the Laramie Project, and we'll sing of Matthew on Sunday. But all of these plays, moments on the stage and moments in the concert hall, they're about Matthew, but they're also about us being filled with hope, love, joy, optimism, acceptance.

And I want that to be part of the lesson too.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Yeah, how do you kind of balance that? I'm sure there's no easy answer for that, but when you are teaching kids how to explore the full range of a human emotion, which we're fairly complicated creatures.

Dr. Michael Culloton

When you're teaching young adults about considering Matthew Shepard, the truth is my colleague Joseph Kemper and I, we don't have to say much. They will and they have spoken. And they have said some of the most meaningful things that I've ever heard said out loud by students in a classroom or in a rehearsal room.

And I will say this too, that at the beginning of the process, I was pretty clear to the students that I refused to impose upon them emotions that they have to feel to do this work. That if some students hold views different than others in the room, that they too are loved and welcomed into the discomfort of this piece of music. And that they can accept this work on whatever level they want to accept the work.

The only real pushback from students was just simply, do we have to sing those words in that one movement?

Ashley Thornberg

Anti-gay slurs, I'm assuming?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Right off of the posters that were being chanted and held up at the funeral of Matthew. And that was a hard bridge to cross, but we asked Craig about that too. And again, it's okay to provide a painful context for the rest of the work.

This work is brimming with optimism and the recognition that good people exist and that good people make bad choices and that we all have the ability to make somebody's life better or worse with our words or actions. And the way that we explore those ideas throughout the piece is inspiring. And it's inspired hundreds of performances all around the United States and all around the world.

One of my favorite videos on YouTube of it is a German choir singing the piece. So, I mean, it's really resonating, but I think the reason I really wanted to do this weekend was so that we can show love to all of our students, so that our students can be seen and heard. And we have seen them and we have heard them through the process of learning this piece.

And I think that the majority of people in our world would be inspired by what our students have said and what they'll accomplish this weekend.

Ashley Thornberg

Why did you want to make this multi-art faceted?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Well, the liberal arts environment that I get to work in every day is about celebrating all sorts of different ways to look at things. And the Laramie Project is a really meaningful stage work.

It was built around hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie in the days and years that followed Matthew's murder. And it's an important stage piece. And so I floated it to the Library of Congress to David Winterstein more than a year ago.

And he was a very quick yes, very quick yes on we could make this work out. And there's just a synergy that can be created when we look at things from different angles. And that's what I was excited about doing.

And I was really, really pleased when we got backing from, or I should say partnership with the theater and Roxanne Case in our cultural events said yes to this right away. Like not only, oh yay, I support this, but let's put this on the cultural event series. Let us promote this all year long and let's be part of sharing this with the community at large.

But I was excited about it just basically because we're in a situation where we can do that. And sometimes, even if I was doing this with my community choir, the Fargo-Moorhead Choral Artists, it would be harder to do anything except for the choral work. But in the environment of a college situation where you've got willing partners, use them and make it really meaningful.

Ashley Thornberg

It's always really intriguing when somebody's death becomes their legacy. How do you describe Matthew's legacy?

Dr. Michael Culloton

Both Judy and Dennis, his parents, have spoken and written about, they have no interest in celebrating Matthew as a martyr of any kind. Matthew was a young man who was murdered. But his legacy can be celebrated in that laws have been enacted.

The country has made changes using Matthew's name to better the lives of especially members of the LGBTQ plus community. And so the legacy of Matthew is that he is, he is one of those names and humans that has led to change, sadly not able to see it. And hopefully, members of the LGBTQ plus community would say that in numerous ways, their lives are better because of the awareness that came through the awful events and the tragic events of Matthew's murder.

The legacy, I'm with Matthew's parents on that. We're not holding up Matthew to be any martyr or saint. We're recognizing that through Matthew's death, a large segment of our population has seen changes and awareness that I think they would say has made their lives better.

NOTE: Prairie Public transcripts are created on a rush deadline by turboscribe.ai. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of "Main Street" is the audio record of the show.