The characters are real. The lines are real. The people and places of Laramie, Wyo., whose images will be projected at the Dana Center for the Humanities during Saint Anselm Abbey Players’ rendition of The Laramie Project are all very real.
To tell the story of the real-life murder of Matthew Shepard, these college players worked to get the smallest details as accurate as possible — from researching the accents of their characters to uncovering the real, court-held speeches.
None of the text has been cut; the production Nov. 9 through Nov. 11 will presented the play exactly as it was written by the Tectonic Theater Project in 2000. The group, based in New York City, traveled to Laramie one month after Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was beaten and left tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, only to die six days later. Tectonic Theater conducted more than 200 interviews, and took those conversations, word for word, to the stage.
This weekend, in this ensemble play, 16 young actors will portray more than 60 of those people who were interviewed, exploring the depths that humanity can sink to and the heights of compassion it’s capable of.
The show flows like a series of snapshots; the lines are placed together like a documentary. It’s one of the most-produced plays in the country, said Saint Anselm English professor and play director Landis Magnuson.
“Father Roger Schmit [the parish priest of Laramie] warns [the interviewers from Tectonic Theater] twice in the production that you need to do your best to say it correct. We’ve taken this as our guiding light in the production,” Magnuson said. “Everything we’re attempting is to be true and honest to these various voices. ... It’s hard not to be struck by the beauty of what an individual says.”
Christopher Gillette was in the Saint Anselm playreading ensemble that chose The Laramie Project as a fall production.
“I’d never read anything like this play; the way it’s set up, it’s not like a traditional show. There are short moments, when you get glimpses of what each character is doing,” Gillette said.
The students have gone to great lengths to tell the story accurately.
Actor Zach Camenker, for instance, a first-year member of the Abbey Players who was sporting a vibrant orange “freshman” T-shirt at the Halloween evening rehearsal, has worked tirelessly on one of the last scene of the play. He plays Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s father. Perhaps one of the most famous speeches of production is the address that Dennis Shepard makes in court during the trial of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both of whom were found guilty of the murder of his son.
The speech in the play is only part of what Dennis Shepard said in the courtroom that day. “There was actually a lot that was left out,” Camenker said. “But finding the original helped me understand the speech better,” and it helped him draw more from Dennis Shepard’s character. It’s evident when he stands alone on stage, looks at the audience and unfolds a piece of paper with his speech, that he’s not taking this part lightly. This speech was the first that he worked on when he found out that he got this role, and you can hear his earnestness, in the pauses, in his hand gestures, in his voice.
The production also poses a challenge for these actors because of the number of characters they’re bringing on stage. Gillette is constantly re-reading his lines backstage, between characters, in order to get them straight. He, too, has been working overtime to perfect his role, listening to recordings and watching YouTube videos to capture character.
Magnuson is constantly egging cast members to work toward the bigger picture, Gillette said, but letting these students find the way themselves. “He never says what he wants you to do; he wants you to come up with it yourself,” Gillette said.
There was debate as to whether anything should be cut out of this 2.5-hour running show, Magnuson said. It’s a long show; some productions have cut parts out.
But keeping all the lines, the characters, the words was important in sending the message, he said: “Who can decide whose voice can be silenced?”