Audience members attending an upcoming Evanston Township High School student performance of “The Laramie Project” will have much to discuss after the show. Sandwiched between “A Christmas Carol” in December and a spring production of: The Music Man,” “The Laramie Project” is a fact-based representation of actual events that occurred in Laramie, Wyo, around the time that a 21-year-old college student was the victim of a gruesome hate crime. This month 16 ETHS students will play the roles of some 50 actual Laramie townspeople who were interviewed in Laramie after the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard. The three-act play, by playwright and director Moisés Kaufman, of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, is a docudrama based on over 400 interviews with Laramie residents, as well as journal entries and reflections of members of the original theater company that traveled to Laramie six times to interview townspeople.
“‘The Laramie Project’ is about how a town comes to terms with, and takes responsibility for, an act of violence,” said Tim Herbert, theater teacher and director of the show. “I think it’s a production that works in many locations because every town has to come to terms with events that happen in that place.” Research for the original production began in November 1998, just a month after the highly publicized murder of Matthew Shepard, when members of Mr. Kaufman’s theater group traveled to Laramie to conduct in-person interviews with people most closely associated with the crime. From those unscripted responses of over a hundred people emerged the play that premiered at the Denver Theater Center in 2000 and has been produced throughout the world. Through the project, Mr. Kaufman was trying to understand the culture of the Wyoming town; present-day audiences who see “The Laramie Project” will be able to think about how the issues of education, social and economic class, homosexuality and religion can intersect to create a culture of intolerance and violence.
The ETHS cast has been preparing for this show since just before the winter break, and the students have been working hard to understand and capture the values and emotions of the townspeople they play – just as the original Tectonic company did. “These are real people we are playing, and we have to make them real and personal to the audience,” said cast member Allie Affinito, who plays the diverse roles of an old-time rancher, a lesbian professor and the grandmother of one of the convicted murderers. “Mr. Herbert insisted we know how each character moves, how each one walks, precisely how they talk, and even how they sit,” she said.
Another cast member, senior Melina Neves, agrees that the actors have had to work hard to step into their various roles. “It’s our responsibility to the real people we are portraying to leave our own personalities behind. And each of the characters I play is a very different sort of person from the others,” she said. As the ensemble cast comes forward to speak, the audience comes face to face with one of Melina’s characters – the judge presiding at the trial – and others that include Matthew Shepard’s teacher, the governor of Wyoming, the bartender at the Fireside bar, the Catholic priest who organized a vigil, the bicyclist who found Matthew Shepard’s body, reporters, a police sergeant, Matthew Shepard’s parents, a prisoner in the state penitentiary, the emergency room doctor, students at the university, friends of Matthew Shepard, and the two young men eventually found guilty of the murder – Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.
“The Laramie Project” does not use the convention of scenes, as do most plays; instead it offers the audience “moments.” In the “moments” that are repeated throughout the play, characters representing the original Tectonic Theater Project members read entries from their journals. These sections provide a bit of background and insights into the history of Laramie and help create the atmosphere of the play. They also help the audience understand that the town of Laramie was like before the murder. “The moments are a series of interrelated monologues,” explained cast member Alex Foucault.
“These flow into each other in a kind of improvised way that is a bit different from traditional scenes. ‘The Laramie Project’ doesn’t have starring roles. We are an ensemble cast,” said the junior and veteran ETHS actor who plays five different characters in this play – including Aaron McKinney, one of the murderers. “We are all in it together with no leading parts. Because of this the cast has definitely bonded. It is an amazing, fun and energetic group,” Alex Foucault said.
The ETHS actors in “The Laramie Project” feel strongly about the play’s importance. “I hope the audience will get the sub-texts,” commented sophomore Emily Fishkin. “I hope they feel the judgements the characters hold internally.” A number of cast members echoed her statement that “it is important that the audience sees how this horrible act of prejudice happened and why.” Ms. Fishkin’s hope for the play is that people will come away saying, “I never want this to happen here, and I’m going to do something about it.” The cast will do one in-school performance for history classes; regrettably, the Upstairs Theater is not large enough to accommodate the entire student body.
“The Laramie Project” will run Feb. 11 -13 in the Upstairs Theater at ETHS, 1600 Dodge Ave. Show time is 7:30 p.m., and ticket prices are $5 for students and seniors and $7 for adults. Tickets can be ordered by calling the Fine Arts ticket line: 847-424-7848.