The Laramie Project

“The irony of the date of the opening night of the first play put on by the Woodstock Union High School YOH Theater Players only makes ‘The Laramie Project’ more riveting, for that is the exact day nineteen years ago that 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, severely beaten and left to die.

Although the link was unintentional, YOH director Marcia Bender nonetheless acknowledged that the importance of the play rests with ‘being knowledgeable about what happens in our world’ and ‘what we can do in our own small ways to understand and respect people.’

‘Even in our school culture we can promote respect and intolerance of behavior that demeans or undermines another person’s authority and position’ said Bender in a recent interview.

In October 1998 Shepard was a victim of a brutal assault because he was gay. Playwright and director Moisés Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project made six trips to Laramie over the course of a year and a half, conducted more than 200 interviews with the people of the town, and formulated their responses into a play called ‘The Laramie Project.’

Divided into three acts, the actors portray more than sixty characters in a series of short scenes. At WUHS, there are 30 participants, 28 actors, and 2 lighting/technology students. The play is comprised of a series of ‘moments’, rather than scenes, Bender noted.

‘It’s been exhilarating to work together on this play,’ said Bender. ‘The subject is tough and sometimes depressing and demanding, and we found ourselves sad and low at times, without much energy. But “The Laramie Project” has great storytelling and intriguing characters and our actors playing multiple roles.’

The setting is Laramie, Wyoming, and the moments are presented in and out of real time, in many unknown locations. Most of the players remain on stage for the entire play, even when they are not acting in a moment. The audience can see the actors transforming from one character to the next with a simple prop or costume piece.

‘The play is really powerful because you know that the words that are being spoken are the words of the actual people who lived in the town and saw everything that was happening,’ said WUHS Senior Maggie Burns who plays Rebecca Hilliker, Head of the Theater Department at the University of Wyoming.

The cast has been rehearsing since Sept. 5, every day after school until 6 p.m.

‘Everyone has been part of every rehearsal as we learn and work together’ said Bender.

Perhaps the highlight of those rehearsals came on Sept. 11-13 when the Tectonic Theater Project came to work with WUHS cast members for four hours each day. The work sessions, aka ‘Moment Work,’ were comprised of learning to express small gestures without text in addition to costume pieces, props, lighting, and eventually creating ‘moments’ on stage, adding overlapping text for the members’ own short theater pieces.

”Moment Work’ is a group process,’ said Bender. ‘We learned to create ideas and make decisions together which changed our rehearsal process completely. We discussed every aspect of our play together, and the students have been involved every step of the way, taking responsibility for ideas and decisions. Students took on character development in a new way, thinking about how gesture and movement settle into a character and how they can express that in their own bodies.’

WUHS Junior Alivia Salls, for example, plays four characters including Sherry Aanenson (a friend of one of the perpetrators), a news reporter Reverend Fred Phelps from Kansas, and Lucy Thompson, grandmother of one of the perpetrators.

‘They’re all very different, so I had to come up with a lot of differences for the same situation,’ said Salls. ‘We all have gestures but they had to be different for each character, including their speech. It was pretty hard.’

For Junior Anna Hepler, who plays the three characters of Romaine Patterson (a friend of Shepard), Matt Mickelson (bar owner), and Reggie Fluty (police officer), the play is a way to keep the dialogue going surrounding the conflict that some feel about the gay community.

‘We’ve had a lot of good conversations come out of this,’ said Hepler. ‘We’ve talked about people and what makes them be the way they are, and that’s a good thing.”

Cast members, in fact, had a workshop on social justice music and will be including four songs in the performance in four-part acapella music.

‘Audiences can look forward to the truth of Laramie as it experienced tragedy and the in-depth work of our students as they have explored these characters and taken on multiple roles,’ said Bender.

Bender’s decision to select this play is based on her recent perusal of it.

‘When I read this play, knowing that it is a popular performance piece for high school theaters, I couldn’t put it down,’ said Bender. ‘I was also impressed by the Tectonic Theater Project’s willingness to take the time to get to know the community and make the work about the people and their experience.’

The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project, will be performed on Oct. 6, 7 (7 p.m.), and 8 (3 p.m.).”