The Laramie Project: ‘More Than Just a Play’

The Sunday before winter term exams, instead of studying, I decided go to see “The Laramie Project” in Steinbach Theatre, and I’m glad I did. This term’s Theatre 210 course, “The Laramie Project,” offered a factual and unbiased account of the happenings in Laramie, Wyoming directly following the attack and death of Matthew Shepard. Moisés Kaufman and other members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie when news broke of Matthew Shepard’s tragedy. They conducted over one hundred interviews with Laramie residents, collecting their responses to the incident, and used these real-life accounts as dialogue for the play. “These are real people. This is what real people said,” remarked actress Jane Thomas ’10 in a post-show discussion. With absolutely no budget, director Eli Grober ’09 had the challenging task of staging a full-length play in Steinbach theatre with resources comparable to those allotted for a DramaLab. But thoughtful placement of cubes, chairs, tables and minimal props juxtaposed with the simple costume each actor wore—jeans and a black T-shirt—provided for an aptly light dose of setting, which consequently drew the audience’s attention to the characters’ stories. Grober told me that all he really cared about during the audition process for his independent project was the actors’ ability to honestly convey a story. So, he employed a rather unconventional audition method. “Because the Laramie Project is about people telling stories, people would audition by telling their own dramatic story. We looked for honesty in auditions,” said Grober. Additionally, in the discussion a fair portion of the actors acknowledged that they had never acted before. “I wasn’t reluctant to cast non-actors,” explained Grober. “I wanted to create a level playing field.” With six or seven acting virgins in the cast, it was either an immense reflection of Grober’s directing ability or a shame that these naturally gifted thespians were never previously seen on the Andover stage, because “The Laramie Project” felt like an impressive faculty-directed production as opposed to a student-directed Independent Project. Mathew Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, had recently visited campus and “really brought it home” for Thomas. Other actors expressed similar sentiments. Hannah Turk ’09, whose portrayal of Romaine Patterson, a close friend of Matthew’s, was one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen at Andover, said that Judy Shepard’s visit “made ‘The Laramie Project’ so much more than just a play.” She added, “I as well as the rest of the cast realized that these words were not things written by the playwright—it was the truth.” Tempted to research her character, a political activist who today maintains a blog, Turk stopped herself because she wished to create a truthful character using just her interpretation of the text, not an impersonation manufactured from watching a YouTube video. Interestingly, Grober hadn’t originally thought of directing “The Laramie Project” for his Independent Project. It was only when Judith Wombwell, Instructor in Theatre and Dance, suggested the play to him last fall that he read Kaufman’s interview play. Grober decided, with the support of the Theatre and Dance Department, that he would tackle this complex play as an Intro to Acting Theatre 210 class, where Wombwell would teach the students basic acting skills and Grober would supply the students with a full-length production to apply and enrich those skills in. Laramie is difficult in that the play calls for 54 characters, but in practice that number is unrealistic. Thus, Grober cast 20 students, planning for each student to play two or three roles. One aspect of Grober’s interpretation I loved was that the whole cast remained onstage for the entire play. Two sections of chairs flanked the stage, where cast members who were not in the current scene would sit facing the action, playing reporters watching the story unfold, taking careful notes. This creative choice embraced the spirit of an ensemble piece in “The Laramie Project,” making the play more immediate and universal. Additionally, five randomly selected audience members were handed one page of the script with a highlighted juror’s line to read during the trial scene, which was a clever way to involve the audience and make the play more universal. Indeed, the universality and realism of the play touched everyone in Steinbach Theatre that afternoon. As the play concluded, the audience leapt into a standing ovation, brimming with sadness and awe. And as I stood among them, wiping a tear away with my program, I couldn’t help but think that Matthew Shepard was smiling down at our small, deeply moved theater, thanking us for telling his story.