LAGRANGE, Ga. — LaGrange College began its spring production “The Laramie Project” to packed houses last week and will continue this week, but for those involved in the show it’s much more than a role to play or a night on stage.
Cast and crew said it’s not just a play, but rather a catalyst for introspection and self examination
“I’m hoping this will, for even a brief moment, let people stop and ask themselves why they believe the way they believe,” said Nate Tomsheck, LaGrange College assistant professor and technical director of “The Laramie Project.”
The documentary-style production is based on the story of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay University of Wyoming student, who was brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyo. Shepard’s death was widely seen as prompting the need for hate crimes legislation.
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The play was written by Moisés Kaufman after he and others went to Laramie to interview the community shortly after Shepard’s death.
Tomsheck said it was time for LaGrange to do a serious, thought-provoking production. While it’s been more than a decade since Shepard was beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence in an isolated rural area, the powerful story still resonates today.
Those at the college hope Shepard’s story will impact their audience when their production of “The Laramie Project” continues Thursday-Saturday.
Tomsheck and Kim Barber Knoll, who chairs the college’s theatre arts department, started thinking about the production when the season was announced about a year ago. Knoll said from the start they were both on the same page and she also hopes audience members question their own beliefs after seeing the play.
“I cannot imagine people watching this play and not examining how they think and feel about a lot of issues,” she said. “Even if they don’t say it out loud. I feel like it lays it out there for people to really think about their own thoughts, what they say, how they say it, how it affects people.”
“The Laramie Project,” which primarily chronicles the reaction to Shepard’s death, has been performed all over the country by various outlets, including many schools. The play is often used to combat prejudice and teach tolerance. The monologues in the play are verbatim from the interviews conducted following Shepard’s death in Laramie.
The documentary-style of the show presents certain challenges for cast and crew. Tomsheck, who designed the set, said he had a very personal connection when planning the show. He was in college in the west himself when Shepard was murdered and drew on those experiences. The set involves a backdrop, six chairs, a table and podium.
“It’s a lot more about getting the essence of the show, not pounding people over the head about where we are,” Tomsheck said. “What do I want Georgia to see of my interpretation of the west?”
For Tomsheck and others in play, their performances also require a special degree of precision due to the nature of “The Laramie Project.”
Students Mary Duttweiler and Anna Carroll Simms, who were just in elementary school when Shepard died, said there’s difficulty in portraying their real-life characters.
“It’s making sure what I say is what’s in the script, being as truthful to it as possible because these are people’s words and how they felt,” Duttweiler said.
Both said they did extensive research to prepare for the play, including watching documentaries on Shepard and reviewing the interviews of the people of Laramie.
“With all the research it’s made everything extremely personal. These are real people. This really did happen,” Simms said, adding that’s why it’s critical to have her performance entirely accurate. “It’s not an interpretation, it’s what happened.”
The cast wants the audience to see what happened in Laramie, and the consequences it had on a small community and a country. Duttweiler said she hopes guests walks away with their eyes wide open.
“Hate crimes occur every where and it does not just occur in one location. In a small way it affects all of us,” Duttweiler said. “Laramie, Wyoming, could be LaGrange, Georgia.”