Students and faculty perform “The Laramie Project” during Hancock Symposium at Westminster College
BY JOSEPH NIEVES
Dramatic reading of “The Laramie Project” performed Tuesday, September 16 in the Church of St. Mary, Aldermanbury.
A dramatic reading of “The Laramie Project” was staged inside the Church of St. Mary, Aldermanbury by Westminster College students and faculty last Tuesday. The play tells the true story of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project’s interactions with the citizens of Laramie, Wyo., in the year following the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young, openly gay University of Wyoming student. It captures a community at a loss, struggling to understand itself in the aftermath of such a violent hate crime and the intense media scrutiny that ensued. The play prompted a national conversation regarding attitudes towards homosexuality.
Andy Paris, who co-wrote “The Laramie Project” and delivered the lecture “Acting, Theater, and Social Justice: The Tectonic Theater Today,” on Sept. 16 at the 2014 Hancock Symposium at Westminster College’s opening plenary session, was among the 200 attendees that night. In 1999 he traveled to Laramie as a member of the Tectonic Theater Project. Once there, he and the group conducted hundreds of interviews with town residents and wrote the play based on the transcriptions of those interviews.
Paris said that engaging with audiences is the most satisfying part of his work. “Over the year and a half that we spent writing it there were several workshops that we did,” he said. “And after every workshop we would check back with our audience and listen to their feedback and definitely take that into account.”
Dr. Nathaniel Leonard directed the reading, which featured a mix of eight faculty and students, playing a rotating cast of dozens of Laramie residents. As a member of the Symposium Committee, Dr. Leonard was the person who suggested bringing Andy Paris to speak. When Paris agreed, staging the play seemed to be a natural connecting point to the lecture. “I assumed the vast number of students had neither seen nor read the play,” Dr. Leonard said. “It was a way to expose them without being like, ‘Here’s a reading assignment.'”
Dr. Heidi LaVine was among the faculty cast members. For her, participation was a way of supporting the students involved with the project. She said that, because students are asked on a daily basis to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones, she wanted to show that she was willing to do the same.
For cast members Gordon Allison Jr., ’17, Carrie Antoine, ’17, and Emma Kliethermes, ’16, acting has been a lifelong hobby. “I loved doing community theater, and children’s theater when I was a kid,” Allison said. “The Laramie Project” is his sixteenth play. However, he also sees it as an opportunity to engage in an important dialogue. “We like to think in the modern era that we’re done with all those things, the civil rights movements and all that. No, it’s still going on today.” Allison, currently undeclared but leaning towards Transnational Studies, sees discrimination as a global issue concerning not only race-ethnicity, but sexual orientation, religion, and other factors as well. He said he believes that everyone has an inalienable right to equal treatment and opportunity.
One of the themes of the play is the way religious institutions respond to people who are gay, which is a conversation that Rev. Jamie Haskins, director of spiritual life on campus and Westminster College’s first openly gay hire, has all time.
“When you serve the church your sexuality is like a badge that you wear on your shirt,” she said during the question and answer session following the reading. “Everyone gets to have an opinion about it.”
Rev. Haskins observed that much of the violence towards the LGBT community is wrapped in religious rhetoric. In these instances, she said, religion is used as a weapon to wound people instead of as a source of empowerment and inspiration. She sees her participation in the reading as a way to communally explore the divides associated with her identity, in what she considers to be the perfect setting. “I couldn’t think of a better place to have this conversation than a chapel.”
Dr. Leonard agreed. “This is a very powerful piece. So, this setting, there’s something very dramatic about it.”
“The Laramie Project” was adapted into a movie for HBO in 2002 which earned an Emmy nomination. In 2009, aris and the Tectonic Theater Project returned to Wyoming to create a follow-up piece which became, “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.”