by Deidra Lyngard
This October is the 20th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay university student who was beaten and left to die in a field near Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. Following this tragic event, members of the New York City Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to interview residents about how the murder had impacted them and the town. Transcripts of these interviews became the core of a play, “The Laramie Project,” which is being presented this week by the Springside Chestnut Hill Academy Players.
For the past several years, students in Players have tackled issues presented by the plays they have chosen to perform through an educational outreach program called “Outside the Rec.” These educational activities are intended to help audiences become more aware of the biases that often lie at the heart of many older productions, as well as deal with challenging content.
Last fall, Players presented “My Fair Lady,” and their educational outreach centered on socioeconomic discrimination. During the 2016-2017 season they addressed gender discrimination as part of their production of “Legally Blonde,” and later that year they focused on mental illness around their production of “Harvey.” “Outside the Rec is a crucial aspect of Players to help aid viewers with processing, contextualizing and learning from our shows,” explains senior Emma Godshall, Players co-president and an actor in the current production.
“‘The Laramie Project’ significantly ups the ante with regard to the need for Outside the Rec’s educational efforts. The biases displayed in “Laramie” are far more overt and, unlike past Players productions, far more serious in their implications.
While “Laramie” is a historical drama, based on an actual event, it is also a provocative touchstone for social issues that are still very much alive today, including LGBTQ equality, social justice and homophobia. “Many of the opinions expressed in the play will be challenging for audience goers to hear,” explains Daria Maidenbaum, SCH faculty member and technical director of Players. But being able to have a “civil airing” of these different perspectives within the relatively safe environment of the theater provides a unique opportunity for more open and honest reflection.
Senior Seth Rabinowitz, Outside the Rec crew head and cast member, said, “Whatever you believe, your beliefs will be challenged, and this will hopefully open the door to understanding.” Godshall expressed her hope “that through the play and our educational efforts, we can help people realize that we are all complex individuals, regardless of our beliefs or identifiers, and that this realization is the first step to unifying and working toward a humane society.”
Outside the Rec efforts for “Laramie” range from informal club-sponsored conversations among students interested in the topics covered by the play to a more formal display in the theatre lobby providing historical and social context. The display will include photos and news articles from the period; a timeline featuring highlights of subsequent related events such as the 2009 passage of the anti-hate crime bill known as the Matthew Shepard Act, etc.
“The students have approached their work on this play with a great deal of thoughtfulness, open-mindedness and courage,” says Meghan Rogers, the Players director, SCH faculty member and alumna. “It has challenged them, spurred thoughtful and difficult conversations in rehearsals and elicited deep and honest emotional responses at a time in their lives when they are growing into and defining their own identities, both on and off the stage.”
Rabinowitz says the experience of working with the play has shown him how much people’s views are shaped by their environments and the societies they grow up in, but that “change for the better can come and will come.”
“The Laramie Project” will be performed at SCH Academy’s theater, the Rec, on April 12-14 at 7 pm. Tickets may be purchased at https://sch.ticketleap.com/the-laramie-project/.