Note: This story has been updated from the original version published on Jan. 29 to reflect the cancellation of shows due to cast illness.
Decatur High School’s Advanced Acting Ensemble is putting on a production of “The Laramie Project” this week. The play revolves around a series of interviews by the Tectonic Theater Project with Laramie, Wyoming residents reckoning with the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, who was killed for being gay.
This curricular show is a joint effort between the Advanced Technical Theater and Advanced Acting classes. Acting teacher and director of “The Laramie Project,” Kate McNeil, was initially attracted to “The Laramie Project” because of its large number of roles with about 60 characters and 13 actors.
“The kids get a lot of opportunities to be challenged and play multiple roles at once,” McNeil said.
“They’re all very different characters and none of them are the same,” junior Joey Johnson said. Johnson, a member of the Advanced Acting class, plays 7 characters in the production including Moisés Kaufman, writer of “The Laramie Project,” and Philip Dubois, president of the University of Wyoming. During the course of the play, each character steps forward as if being interviewed, and costume changes and transitions happen onstage in front of the audience.
“A challenge of playing these characters is they’re all real people because this is a real event and these are all interviews,” junior Richard Kertscher said. Kertscher, another member of the Advanced Acting class and the play, takes the fact these characters are real people into account in their portrayal.
“With playing a very diverse group of characters, you have to do them justice because these are real people who suffered,” Kertscher said.
However, the play has become about more than the challenge of playing multiple characters. McNeil saw students connecting with the play’s message.
“When I told them about the show, they researched the topic on their own, and they decided they were all in. It’s giving them a platform to stand up for something they believe in,” McNeil said.
Kertscher sees the way the characters develop as one of the ways the play’s message is conveyed. He hopes the play will empower some in the Decatur community.
“You see a lot of characters in the show who start the show off one way, and you see them grow to accept a few different people in their lives,” Kertscher said. “Maybe bringing this show to Decatur will bring confidence to some people in this community who feel powerless.”
McNeil agrees. She sees plays as something that will open up conversations among audience members, help audience members to understand each other and even spark change in Decatur.
“It’s an opportunity for them to have a voice, an opportunity to say to their friends and their family member, ‘I support you and I love you.’ I’m hoping it’ll open a lot of eyes and get a lot of people talking,” McNeil said.
In the past, this production has been barred from high school theaters. Parents in Colorado and Nevada have worked to prevent this play from reaching high school audiences and hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church have protested productions of “The Laramie Project.”
In light of the mature subject matter, changes have been made to bring the show to DHS. Some vulgar monologues and obscenities have been removed in order to make the show more palatable for audiences, but otherwise, the show has been unchanged.
“It’s already going to be a touchy subject for most people, and there are slurs in it, so I pulled some obscenities to help it not be so offensive. For the most part, we kept most everything the same for the integrity of the show,” McNeil said.
Even without these portions of the play, McNeil thinks the message of the play remains strong.
Above all, McNeil sees this show as a way to bring the student body together and for students to support each other.
“This student body is amazing and they’re supportive of each other, and I hope this just strengthens that bond,” McNeil said. “I hope that they get a better understanding for their fellow students, a little more tolerance for each other, and this is an opportunity for them to look inside themselves, look at the way they’ve treated others, and maybe take action.”
The show will run from Jan. 30 through Feb. 2. Tickets can be purchased at decaturperforms.org or during all lunches this week. Pins will also be sold benefitting Lost-N-Found Youth. More information about Matthew Shepard can be found at matthewshepard.org.
UPDATE: The Thursday and Friday shows of “The Laramie Project” have been cancelled due to multiple members of the show contracting the flu. Due to this being a curricular show, all members of the Advanced Acting class must be involved. Given that there are 60 roles and 13 actors, there are no understudies. As of Friday, the Saturday and Sunday shows are not canceled but could be if actors are still ill. Decisions on cancelation are being made day by day. Decatur Performs will transfer tickets purchased for Friday night to the Saturday or Sunday show or offer a refund. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.