St. Helena Drama’s next production takes on weighty themes of homophobia, grief and collective trauma. But the student directors say “The Laramie Project” is really about hope.
“The light, joy and community that is brought from this show isn’t overpowered by the horrible act it was borne from,” said assistant director Joe Brawdy, a junior at St. Helena High School.
“The Laramie Project” was written by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Company, based on their interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming, where a 21-year-old gay college student named Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in 1998.
Shepard himself isn’t a character in the play, and theater-goers won’t see any violence. Instead, they will watch Laramie residents cope with the tragedy and unite as a community.
“It’s all real people’s words, which makes it very powerful,” said director Sofia Osborne, a senior. “Despite their differing opinions about the LGBT community, no matter their views on the actual event, the people of Laramie all came together as a town.”
The idea of people setting aside their political differences is especially poignant in these polarized times, said Osborne.
If you think a dialogue-driven drama is simpler to stage than a lavishly choreographed musical like last spring’s “Mamma Mia,” you might be surprised. With a cast of 34 students portraying 64 characters, and the same actor sometimes switching between multiple characters onstage, things get complicated.
“The Laramie Project” also has a fluid structure that gives it a unique rhythm.
“Instead of the traditional scene-to-scene, it’s moment-to-moment,” Brawdy said. “The closest thing I can describe it to that we’ve done in the past is ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ (from fall 2017).”
The cast and crew have been gratified by the positive response from students, faculty and the community. People seem surprised that St. Helena Drama would take on such an ambitious project, especially after the success of the frothy, crowd-pleasing “Mamma Mia.”
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“The stage is not only here for everyone’s entertainment,” Brawdy said. “It’s also a catalyst for social change. If people are asking why, we’ve done our job. We’re starting this conversation and creating this dialogue.”
Each curtain call will be followed by what Brawdy calls a “talk-back,” with the cast, crew and audience dissecting the themes raised in the play.
As of this year, Shepard has been dead for as many years as he was alive, noted Patti Coyle, director of St. Helena Drama. While his death helped inspire anti-hate crime legislation and other positive changes, “the LGBT community is still the most at-risk for violence,” Coyle said. “We need to keep having this conversation, especially when voices in higher authority are spouting some of the hate that they are.”
Osborne and Brawdy, both students in Coyle’s Advanced CTE Drama class, came up with the idea of producing “The Laramie Project.” Coyle admitted that she wouldn’t have consented during her first few years in St. Helena because the community wouldn’t have been ready for it.
“There’s been a cultural shift,” Coyle said. “If there’s any sign of the times, it’s that the youth of today are the ones who want to do this work. That’s really inspiring.”
This is St. Helena Drama’s first student-directed production since summer 2018’s “12 Angry Jurors,” which was co-directed by Osborne and Mia Pelosi.
Over the summer Osborne took a six-week directing class through Carnegie Mellon University’s pre-college program. She said the class expanded her view of theater, and directing “The Laramie Project” gives her a chance to apply those lessons on the stage.
Coyle hopes to see the string of student-directed plays continue every year, with a senior like Osborne mentoring a junior like Brawdy, who would take over as director the next year.
“The Laramie Project” contains some strong language and is recommended for ages 12 and up.