Less than two years after Laurie Berson was told she was too young to watch “The Laramie Project,” she’s performing in the play. She wants her friends to see it, too.
“The Laramie Project” script is a compilation of real dialogue and interviews with people in Laramie, Wyo. in the year after gay college student Matthew Shepard was beaten to death there. Berson, a 14-year-old freshman at Winston Churchill High School, is certain the play will open the eyes of many students her age.
“I’m making one of my homophobic friends come and see this,” she said. “I just think it needs to be heard.”
For Berson and Churchill juniors Chloe Richards and Leeron Silberberg, three of the 13 performers in Act Two’s production of “The Laramie Project,” this play means more than acting out a role. This story is real, the dialogue is real, and it wields a message they want their friends and community members to hear.
BERSON, RICHARDS and Silberberg are among the 13 local students performing “The Laramie Project” at the Olney Theatre March 31 through April 2. The cast also includes Chloe Richards and Leeron Silberberg, both Churchill juniors.
“We had a lot of people saying that high schoolers couldn’t do it,” said Kevin Kuchar, director of “The Laramie Project.”
The actors know this.
“People told Kevin [Kuchar] that high school students cannot pull off such an innovative, profound, revolutionary piece of theater,” said Mia Walker, a Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior. “What we’re doing is proving them wrong. … We add a younger but sophisticated view to it.”
ACT TWO’S ACTORS play three to six roles each in “The Laramie Project.” That’s typical of professional and collegiate productions of the play as well. Playing five different roles demands versatility from each actor, each learning that there’s no one way to classify people in Laramie.
Richards’ five roles that include a feminine university theater professor, an ex-convict and a preacher who spews hatred of gays.
“You have so many people throughout the production from cops to ministers to lesbians to gay ranchers,” Richards said. “You have the entire spectrum of people going through.”
“There are so many opinions about the town in the play,” Silberberg said. “You don’t get an idea about what Laramie really is. … You can’t just stereotype it in one way.”
That was part of the aim of author Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theatre Project when they first produced the play in 2000. Instead of resorting to simplistic labels to describe Laramie, Kaufman and his colleagues conducted more than 200 interviews of people in the city.
Walker points out that every word of the “Laramie Project” dialogue — even the “and-uhm’s” — comes directly from these 200-plus interviews, or from such sources as a videotaped confession or court testimony.
Walker, who has performed in children’s roles on Broadway, knows she’s nailing one of her roles when her character loses her composure, and director Kuchar thinks Walker needs to hear the next line.
Playing real people is inspiring and humbling to Silberberg, a Churchill junior with three roles in the play. “They use real people in real situations,” Silberberg said. “These people are still around, going about their lives, and we’re playing them. They could come out and see our play — it’s a scary thing.”
JUST AS THE REALITY about Laramie resists simplistic labels, so does “The Laramie Project.” Benjamin Meck, a Montgomery College freshman performing with Act Two, tends to hear one of three reactions when people hear he’s performing in “The Laramie Project” — they want to see it because of the subject material; they categorize it as a “gay play” and don’t want to see it; or they’ve never heard of it.
“I want people to come into it with an open mind. … They’re going to be in for something they’ve never seen before,” Meck said. “Don’t let the age of the players influence your opinion of the show.”
“I think people need to see that we can pull this off,” Walker said. “This kind of theater is really important. … It’s the kind that makes you think when you leave the theater.”
They’ll think about the giant range of evil and goodness that people are capable of, Walker said. A town that was sometimes portrayed as bigoted or provincial had hateful and intolerant people. Yet there were also people who were born and raised in Laramie who are thoughtful, intelligent, sophisticated or even heroic people.
Walker said: “As much hatred as there is in the world, there is real goodness, no matter where you are.”
‘THE LARAMIE PROJECT' IN THEIR OWN WORDS
“It’s necessary to be able to switch back and forth [between five different roles] and play it convincingly so that people will believe that I am a theater teacher and that I am an ex-con.”
On playing gay-bashing minister Fred Phelps:
“He’s basically the villain of the show. … Most people are like, ‘Oh my God, how can you do that [role]?’ But I just try to take it with a smile — it’s a challenge. …
“This one’s really challenging because you can take it from many different angles, whatever person really speaks to you. … Just see it yourself, take it in yourself, and see what you get out of it. …
“Laramie’s not the terrible town people made it out to be. … You really see Laramie not as a town defined by a crime, but a town where something bad happened and trying to understand it.”
— Chloe Richards, Churchill junior
“I would compare it to the way ‘Rent’ was when it came out. … There’s less ignorance [now] about homosexuality but it’s something that still needs to be addressed. …
“When I rehearse, I frequently feel on the verge of tears. … I’m going to have to pull it together and be strong. …
“Laramie was a normal town. A tragedy happened [and] the world pounced upon it like it was bird food. …
“It’s important to see how a piece of art can unify New York and Wyoming.”
— Mia Walker, Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior
On seeing Montgomery College’s production of the play:
“I loved it. … I just love stuff that makes me really emotional, and I cried a lot. …
“Most people think it’s a gay play, but it’s not a gay play. It’s a play about hate and love. … “Whatever your opinion is or what you care for, you could see this play and you would be able to relate to it.”
— Leeron Silberberg, Churchill junior
“[Before auditioning] I didn’t think I was up for it. …
“A lot of people don’t understand how people can hate other people. …
“They’re going to hear every word we say, and if we do it right, they’re going to be part of our world for a little while. …
“Every line has something. … I think it’s really going to hit home.”
— Laurie Berson, Churchill freshman
“I just really, really like this show. I read it over the summer, and it’s really well put together. …
“I think it’s something important that people need to hear. …
“This case just did so much for hate crime legislation. …
“It’s very deep, and it is a sad story. … It’s hard to imagine that things like that can happen. We need to make sure things like that don’t happen.”
— Alex Clark, Roberto Clemente Middle School 8th-grader
“It’s a bunch of moments. Everything in the show actually happened. … It’s a lot more work for us, because you have to make it real. …
“You’re going to leave it having learned something.”
— Benjamin Meck, Montgomery College freshman