Hate crime and one town’s healing takes center stage in this weekend’s fall play
Following the reaction of the town of Laramie, Wyoming, after the murder of university student Matthew Shephard, Maine West High School’s Fall play, “The Laramie Project,” will be available for download on the Maine West Drama website starting 7 p.m. this Friday, Nov. 13 through Sunday, Nov. 15 at midnight. Tickets for the performance will cost $9 per individual or $25 per family.
Shephard’s torture and murder were the catalyst for national legislation against hate crimes. The Laramie Project is a nonfiction documentary about Shephard and this murder, formatted as a play. Each line is pulled directly from interviews, discussions, and journal entries from real people who lived in Laramie, Wyoming. The play is told in brief “moments,” rather than scenes. Each of these moments provide insight into a particular character’s perspective, and is often juxtaposed with another character’s perspective surrounding the same topic.
Due to COVID-19, rehearsals took place over Zoom, which presented a unique challenge for the cast. Having the majority of the rehearsal process being conducted on a screen, cast members struggled at times with a lack of cohesion and in some ways a lack of communication between cast members. “I think it took the seniors a while to realize that we’re seniors, and that we have to reach out and communicate with other people, because we need to take charge,” senior Belle Gerstmayr, who plays myriad characters in this production, said. “I think it was harder to connect with the freshmen and new members—and old members—through a screen.”
These divisions were quickly lifted in the last three weeks of production, when the cast transitioned to an in-person setting to actually record the play. “In-person is always better for anything,” senior Ethan Webb said, “people need social interaction and I think that really spoke to me here … overall, the calls and stuff, they felt so lifeless, and then there was this massive shift the second we were in person.”
The Laramie Project has a cast of over fifty characters which required each of the actors to take on the challenge of having to play the roles of roughly four to six characters. To avoid mixing up their roles, the actors needed to craft specific characters and conduct personal research—watching news clips and interviews—to replicate how their character really acted. “What helped was the different postures and the different voices and different characteristics,” Gerstmayr said.
What sets The Laramie Project apart from other productions that Maine West has put on is that it is a nonfiction show composed entirely of the words of real people. It was important to the cast to do justice to the experiences of characters. This was emphasized after the members of the cast had the opportunity to meet an actual person involved in the Matthew Shephard incident, Reggie Fluty (the first police officer that arrived to find Matthew Shephard), over Zoom. “I think that was really, really cool because it had a chance to ground everything that we were doing,” Director David Harmon said. “These are real people, this is a real experience that people went through.”
According to Harmon, one of the biggest takeaways from the show is to not be compliant with hate, but rather, responding and taking action against it. “I feel like it speaks to where we’re at,” he said. “Especially since this is airing near the election, it’s kind of a healthy reminder that these issues around hate, they’re not new. And until we decide to actively do something about it, it’s not going to heal itself.”
The show’s multiple-perspective storytelling also provides another lesson: no situation is black and white, and that every person will have their own opinion. The show sheds light on the difference of these opinions after the Matthew Shephard incident. “I think people should come away with more of an awareness that no side is a demon,” Harmon said. “There’s some people that disagree with what happened but it doesn’t mean that they’re monsters.”
Student director Ethan Webb said that the show’s main message is that of hope. Through telling the story of the tragic incident of Matthew Shephard’s murder, many of the residents of Laramie changed and became new people. Much like how the world is currently going through a dark moment, The Laramie Project captures a dark moment in the town of Laramie. Webb hopes that by telling the story of Matthew Shephard and Laramie’s reaction to the events, people will recognize that, “they changed and they improved for the better.”
The set of the show is minimalistic, with each actor having a platform on a broken circle, which symbolizes a broken link between Americans. The actors all wear facemasks and are socially distanced. In the background, there is a weathered American flag that is frayed at the ends and has mismatched stars. To make up for the simple movements and set design, the production utilizes camera work to make the show visually appealing. “We’re relying on camera angles, we’re relying on proximity to the camera, and that sort of thing,” Harmon said.
By telling the story of Laramie, actor and editor Belle Gerstmayr wants the audience to recognize that, “every choice you make against someone is important, and I think this is a really great story. This story needs to be heard. And this isn’t just a thing that happened in the 90s. This still happens and this will continue to happen until people are educated and until people realize that things people are doing are wrong. Your little violences.”