“I will speak to you, I will trust you people that if you write a play of this, that you say it right, you need to do your best to say it correct.” It’s a quote from Laramie, Wyoming priest Father Roger Schmit as he was being interviewed about the murder of Matthew Sheppard in his town, and counsel that director Nick Hoffa and the actors of The Laramie Project take very much to heart. The South Pasadena High School drama department is deep into rehearsals of this seminal play which will open Friday November 9 and run for five performances over two weekends, closing with a Sunday matinee on November 18.
It is the powerful story created by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project when they travelled to Laramie after Shepard’s murder to interview 200 of the townsfolk. With the 20th anniversary this month and the recent interment of Shepard’s remains at the Washington National Cathedral, the play couldn’t be more timely. Fifteen actors play 75+ roles in one of the more challenging pieces the SPHS Drama Department has ever taken on. It’s a piece that senior Andres Oyaga says he was nervous about auditioning for because as he explains, “I wondered if we should do this, as teenagers, can we really grasp how important this is? So I was a bit hesitant and I didn’t know if my parents would be okay with it. But I ended up doing it because it’s an important message and it’s something we don’t talk about in our schools much; how you can be gay and be discriminated against and hated. Now, more than ever, it’s an important issue; I can’t believe I ever hesitated and I think it’s great that our school is doing it.”
Senior Isa Recendez says, “having to be a different person in each scene is interesting to play; connecting with each one of them and figuring out who they are individually.” One character she plays is a young woman who wears a hijab and Recendez says it was important for her to speak with someone who wears a hijab to get a better understanding of its significance and to “educate myself and make sure I get it right.” Recendez admits she didn’t know about Matthew Shepard’s murder and is proud to be a part of this production telling us, “this is something we all still really need to talk about; it’s an issue that’s not going away and it’s important to open people’s eyes.”
Director Nick Hoffa tells us “it was important that we approached each character from a very human standpoint; these are real people who had real experiences so rather than thinking of all of these scenes as part of this one, big play, we treated each moment as if we were constantly jumping into the middle of a conversation; like you’re watching TV and changing channels. Our job was to re-create those conversations and bring those people’s words to life as much as we could.” He explains there is a lot of complex weaving that takes place to create a coffee shop, a bar, a bench, a desk; all of the scenarios and says, “all of this happens in split second changes, so we’re spending a lot of time running the choreography of it.”
Junior Grace Chavez explains what is most difficult in differentiating between her six characters is “figuring out how to switch. You have the different characters and you know what you’re doing but when you come off stage from one character and walk right back on as another role, you have to immediately adopt the mannerisms of the new character.” Echoes sophomore Kayla Nielson, “there are a few characters who only speak once but some come back; I have two characters who go back and forth while I stay on stage the whole time so I put on my glasses and become a different person.”
Chavez goes on to say, “I think when people see this brought to life on stage they are really going to connect with this show because South Pasadena is a small town like Laramie.” Nielson adds, “people may know about Matthew, but they may not know exactly what happened or how people reacted at the time. As much as Matthew’s family had to deal with the aftermath, the town had to confront being associated with a hate crime, “we’re not our own town anymore”, and I think it’s important we show the emotions that they went through. This is our human history and if we don’t learn about it we’re going to repeat it.”
To those who, understandably, are expecting the show to be “dark”, Hoffa says, “while this is undeniably sad and tragic, this play makes me laugh a lot. We’ve all been to funerals where we laugh; human beings faced with tragedy find humor and we find life and vitality and so yes, the subject matter is sad and the situation is tragic but it’s our job to bring life to each person so that it’s not maudlin.” He continues, “And it’s important to treat every character with humanity so that we can understand how this might have happened. That is in some ways the question that the play is asking, “how could this happen?” and over and over again the playwright is telling us and Matt’s mother, Judy Shepard, is telling us to not pretend that this happened in some rural place in Wyoming. Laramie is a college town, it’s an artistic town, it’s the size of South Pas.”
In fact Hoffa sent the actors a clip from the Laramie Art Walk and a couple of them responded saying how much it reminds them of South Pasadena. The director says “it’s important that the lesson of the play is not like this happened far away but in the words of one of the characters, “we are like this”. She repeats it three times to hammer home the idea that this is not something foreign, that the possibilities for this exist in lots of places and to pretend that it doesn’t exist here is to put your head in the sand.”
The production is using photography from Laramie and Wyoming photographers, original music by some indie bands in Laramie, who graciously allowed them to use their music; all of which has helped the actors feel connected to the story and connected to the town. “I hope the play feels current and not from a different era and a different land,” says Hoffa, “it feels like it was a long time ago, 20 years ago, but there’s a lot going on in the world, as much as we might feel that we’ve moved beyond it, we as a country; the conversation on hate crimes has evolved, the conversation on gay rights has evolved, but not enough so that this is a distant memory.”
Of Father Roger’s counsel to “say it right” Hoffa says, “we can’t tell it halfway, we really have to tell the full story, warts and all, in order to do honor to the play and to do honor to Matthew’s memory. And if we don’t do that then we’re abdicating our responsibility and not really telling the story.”
The Laramie Project has mature language and themes. Parental discretion advised for 13 and under.
The Laramie Project (directed by Nick Hoffa, technical direction by James Jontz) runs two weekends: Fri Nov 9th & Sat Nov 10th, 7pm, and Fri Nov 16th, Sat Nov 17th, 7pm and Sun Nov 18th at 2pm. The Little Theater, South Pasadena High School, 1401 Fremont Ave. South Pasadena. General Admission is $15. Tickets may be purchased online at sphsasb.org, in the SPHS student bank after noon, or in the SPHS Main Office.