Given the tragic subject matter, the tone of “The Laramie Project,” which will be performed by students in the Hinman Production Company (HPC), may seem dark and morose; however, at rehearsal the mood is quite the opposite.
Lights are up in the Hinman Commons, illuminating a desolate wooden fencepost that will help tell the tragic story of Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming. Shepard was attacked and beaten to death on Oct. 6, 1998 and his death would become notoriously known as one of the most horrible anti-gay hate crimes to ever plague this country. Laramie, Wyo., the site of his death, would be marked as a site of cruelty and hastily defined by crime. “The Laramie Project” is about what happens next. The theatrical production is based on a compilation of journal entries and interviews taken by the Tectonic Theater Project (TTP) in Laramie, which recorded reactions ranging from the people living in the town, to the doctor who cared for Shepard, all making commentary on human sexuality, community and the strength to carry on.
Director Ruben Martinez, a senior majoring in economics, calls the small cast of 10 into a circle for their daily warm-up. There is immediate chemistry between the actors as they pass around the “candle” (a.k.a Chinese food container filled with cookies) and each share something that happened to them that day. It is evident how excited they all are to be performing “The Laramie Project” for Binghamton University, and Martinez’s role of director certainly does not go unnoticed or underappreciated.
“He is the most inspiring leader I’ve seen in general,” said Ross Pohling, a senior majoring in physics. “Charisma is oozing out of him. He never ceases to motivate me and to be his friend is a great honor.”
The warm-up is inviting and resembles an open and heart-warming therapy session, not unlike the documentary, conversational style of the show itself. As they end the warm-up chanting “We Will Rock You,” Martinez calls places at 8:30 p.m. on the dot and the actors can be heard rustling quietly backstage until lights go up and Act I begins.
Aside from a small wooden table and some stools scattered on the stage, the set is empty and cast members enter consecutively, each speaking as a person represented in the Tectonic Theater Project’s 200 interviews. Each player talks about Laramie and what it became after Shepard’s murder: a town defined by crime. Each character spoke out directly, documentary-style, in a very laid back and matter-of-fact manner. As audience members listen, they will learn of the aftermath of Shepard’s death on both a regional and national level and will hear of the differing viewpoints from the police officer who found Shepard chained to the post, to the town ministers and all the way to university students as they contemplate their stances on homosexuality. The message is all the more poignant because of the manner in which it is presented, showcasing the actors in many different roles.
Michaela Pavia, a senior majoring in linguistics, plays Rebecca Hilliker, a member of the TTP and the head of the Department of Theater and Dance at the University of Wyoming.
“The cast gets along really well and is focused on developing each character separately,” Pavia said. “It is so great because it really is an ensemble show, which showcases many people in different roles. Each person has about eight-nine roles each, so it is a very collaborative process. We also have a very minimalist take on it — there is very minimal set and costume.”
The HPC certainly takes its craft as seriously as the director, Martinez. Cast members Pohling and Rachel Ginzburg, a senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, took their time on spring break to visit Laramie, where they conducted more research to capture the heart and soul of the play and deliver the message effectively. While in Laramie, they met with the real-life Rebecca Hilliker and spoke with her about her experiences after Shepard’s death and with “The Laramie Project.” They also discussed the goals of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and visited the actual places referenced in the play, including the hospital in which Shepard died. Perhaps most importantly, they visited the exact location where Shepard was tied up, which Martinez described as eerie, yet beautiful.
If you are still asking yourself why you should take time out of your weekend activities to go and see the HPC perform “The Laramie Project” here are the answers. It is a great story of a triumphant town where university students speak out against hateful, anti-gay crimes. The TTP’s purpose of “The Laramie Project” was to stop hate. In fact, the Matthew Shepard Foundation itself coins the slogan “Erase hate.” While Shepard’s death sparked the conversation about homosexuality and may have changed the way some talk about it, it is still a prevalent issue in society as can be seen with the current talks going on in the Supreme Court with regards to marriage equality.
“People should come and watch us perform the show because it is still such a real issue in society. It’s a play for entertainment but it is a real issue at the same time,” Pavia said. “It really came at such the perfect time with everything that is going on today.”
The HPC strives to tell Shepard’s story and the story of Laramie, Wyoming by sharing the Foundation’s goals to “replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.” “The Laramie Project” can be seen at 8 p.m. on April 5 and 6, as well as an additional 2 p.m. performance on April 6 in the Hinman Commons. Tickets will be sold at the door for $3.