"The Laramie Project" opens William and Mary theater season

Contact Reporterhbridges@vagazette.com

Nearly 18 years have passed since Matthew Shepard's murder.

Robbed, beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead, Shepard, a gay college student, died of his injuries on Oct. 12, 1998.

This murder in Laramie, Wyo. sparked demand for increased hate-crime legislation and, in 2009, President Barack Obama signed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

Still, 18 years later, what more can be done?

It's a question cast and crew hope "The Laramie Project" plants. Running Sept. 22-25, the renowned documentary-drama opens the 2016-2017 season for The College of William and Mary's Department of Theatre, Speech and Dance.

"It's not so much about reliving that moment as much as it is about the discussion that comes out of a crisis in a community," said director Elizabeth Wiley, associate professor of theater. "There are moments of levity and moments of poignancy and thoughtful consideration."

"It's about the conversation."

Soon after Shepard's death, members of the New-York based Tectonic Theater Project ventured to Laramie and interviewed several community members. Moisés Kaufman and fellow company members then wove the interviews and their own personal journal entries into "The Laramie Project."

The original production featured eight cast members, the eight from Tectonic who traveled to Laramie, playing both themselves and the multitude of interviewees. Wiley expanded the cast to 13, and the multitude of characters remain: 71, to be exact.

Although essentially a collection of interviews, the play doesn't feel as such.

"I think (the members of Tectonic Theater Project) did a really great job of organizing all of these interviews so it is a story for the audience," said cast member and junior Kirsten Linder.

A narrator guides audiences through the fast-paced production, and cast members juggle clothing items, accents and nuances to rapidly distinguish each of their characters. Some of the audience sits on risers at the back of the stage.

So often, theater aims to immerse, said cast member Clive LePage, a junior. But rather than immersion into, say, a fantastical world, "The Laramie Project" immerses in reality. Raw and unfiltered.

"With this show, the audience will always have that nagging intuition in their mind that these are real people, who said these real things. And that's not really something that we particularly want to dissipate," LePage said. "We want the audience to know that these are real events. It did happen. This is what came out of it."

And there's more still to come.

"I want each audience member to think: how do I feel about this aspect? That aspect? What is this like in my life? What is this like in my community?" Wiley said.

LePage said the questions go beyond views of homosexuality. It could be questions about journalistic ethics, about the death penalty, about hate crimes committed against other communities.

If anything, the play aims to get audiences thinking and listening.

Some of the characters LePage portrays hold viewpoints different from his own, viewpoints he worked to justify and understand in order to inhabit the character truly.

"The arguments go much further beyond 'this is what I think because I think that way,'" he said. "You really have to delve further into what has happened in your life, in your society, that has caused such a, at times, malicious idea to pervade your thought."

Following each performance, audiences can participate in a post-show discussion, each led by a different college faculty member. Cheryl Dickter, associate professor of psychology, leads Thursday night's discussion, with Friday's led by Helis Sikk, visiting professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies Program. On Saturday, Theatre and Africana Studies professor Artisia Green facilitates the discussion, with the final discussion on Sunday with Sociology professor Jennifer Mendez.

"We want it not to be just a nice story that we come and hear about and then go away," Wiley said. "But instead, let's walk into this and see it as an opportunity to open a dialogue and to keep the conversation going beyond this evening."

LePage hopes the conversation continues much longer.

"I'm excited to listen to what people say a year on from now," LePage said. "See if this show has changed how they think, how they would react to such tragedy. To see if there's any meaningful change that can occur."

"It'll be interesting to test the strength of the theater."

Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-345-2342.

Want to go?

When: 7:30 p.m., Sept. 22-24 and 2 p.m., Sept. 25

Where: Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, 601 Jamestown Road

Tickets: $15/adults, $12/military, $10/groups of 10 or more, $7/students

Tickets available at PBK Hall, open the day of each show from 10 a.m. until showtime, by calling 221-2674 or at wm.edu/boxoffice.

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