‘The Laramie Project’ tests Grady students’ acting abilities

Courtesy of Tectonic Theater Department

Avery Allen

Grady’s fall full-length play, The Laramie Project, challenges actors to tap into personal experience in order to portray emotionally damaged roles while shedding light on an influential event in the LGBTQIA+ community, which is unfamiliar to some students. 

Mary Willoughby is directing The Laramie Project, which opened Dec. 5. The Laramie Project tells the true story of Matthew Shepard, the gay male victim of a deadly hate crime. Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten and tortured to death in 1986 by Russel Henderson and Aaron McKinney, he was left for dead near Laramie, Wyoming. This event brought political attention to hate crime laws, or lack thereof, and had a heavy impact on the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Upon hearing about transgender hate crimes taking place over the summer and the El Paso shooting in August, Willoughby decided to direct this play as a means of spreading knowledge and bringing light to an “uncomfortable” topic. 

“I read a story in a newspaper about a trans individual who was attacked and beaten and killed, and then later in the summer another trans individual was killed,” Willoughby said. “The first thing that came to me when I heard that was ‘Oh my goodness, Matthew Shepard is happening all over again,’ and the debate about if those were hate crimes brought me back to the issues that were raised by the Matthew Shepard incident, and the more I thought about it the more I thought, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to do this show.’”

A play with such a real and heavy plotline is rarely seen on Grady’s stage, nor are Grady actors accustomed to playing such emotionally challenging roles. 

“When I heard about the subject of the show, I was initially very shocked that I’d never heard of this case before, especially as a queer person,” senior Maddie Thorpe said. “It’s a tragedy that so many young people were never taught about, maybe because it’s so graphic or maybe because so many people neglect to talk about queer history, and I think it’s really important that people know about it.” 

Thorpe will play Reggie Fluty, the first police officer to respond to the scene, and Zackie Salmon, a lesbian University of Wyoming staff member who fought for domestic partner benefits for same-sex couples. 

Every character in the show is based on a real person and their lines were pulled from real interviews. Both of Thorpe’s roles face emotional trauma, which led Thorpe to dedicate more time and effort into portraying the characters accurately. Thorpe explained that she is able to get in character by considering parts of her personal life and her values, and then applying that consideration to how she will portray her characters. 

“Reggie, for example, was exposed to HIV while responding to the call because Matthew was HIV positive,” Thorpe said. “And I have a scene about her being unsure of whether she’s contracted the virus and how she’s dealing with that fear. So I really have to put myself in that mindset of ‘I could lose my life.’”

Other cast members were skeptical upon hearing that they would be putting on a high school production that covered such an intense plot. Senior Madison Ford, playing Catherine Connolly and Romaine Patterson, explains that she unsure if they would be able to “do the story justice.”

“I was worried that it wouldn’t have much of an audience because it isn’t what most people would consider entertaining.” Ford said. “ … I feel that it’s important, not only to tell Matthew’s story but to tell the story of the people around him that were affected by his death.”

Ford describes the portrayal of real-life people as intimidating and difficult, especially with the script being derived from actually spoken interviews. As high school students, this is challenging yet extremely beneficial as it tests their limits as actors and teaches them how to access heavier roles. 

“It can be very difficult to portray real people like this,” said Ford. “You have to be sure not to over-act because none of this is made up or fabricated, you don’t want to turn their lives into some over-exaggerated drama or anything. Playing these parts and really getting into the mindset of the characters is extremely difficult and it can be overwhelming at times.”

Willoughby understands the emotional challenge behind portraying such characters and set time aside for the actors to learn about, understand, and even research the individuals involved in Shepard’s case. 

“The process that we’ve used, we’ve done a lot of research because all of the individuals we’re representing are real people,” Willoughby said. “So we’ve done as much research as we can about the characters, we watched the HBO production that was based on the original Laramie project, a couple of kids went to a production of The Laramie Project at the Rialto this fall. We’re doing lots of in-depth text analysis.”

Willoughby, along with Thorpe and Ford state that the show is very important for high schoolers to see because it prompts important conversations. A deadly LGBTQIA+ hate crime is a tough subject, yet affects, or has the potential to affect Grady students, and it is important to educate teenagers on these atrocities

 

“I think it’s important to not be afraid to hear about what’s so horrible about this case so history doesn’t repeat itself,” Thorpe said.