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From Laramie to Athens
School of Theater production sparks dialogue

Oct. 29, 2004

By Marisa Palmieri

"The Laramie Project" will be staged at 8 p.m. today and Saturday.
Tickets are still available and can be purchased at the School of Theater box office in Kantner Hall or call 593-4800.
Eight small wooden chairs line the stage in Kantner Hall's Elizabeth Evans Baker Theater, where the smell of a freshly painted set and the warmth of dim lighting welcome audience members to "The Laramie Project." A men's sport coat is draped over one of the chairs. A police officer's hat rests on another. A tie, a peach sweater, a scarf. Three of the chairs stand unadorned.

In the aftermath of hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard's death in October 1998, Moises Kaufmann and members of the Manhattan-based Tectonic Theater Project traveled to the scene of the crime, Laramie, Wyo. Their goal: to find out what went wrong in this small university town, population 26,687, where residents say they believe in the philosophy "Live and Let Live."

Through a half dozen visits to the town and more than 200 interviews with Shepard's acquaintances and Laramie residents, the playwrights - by writing themselves and their research experiences into the script - poignantly portray a community as it became the site of a national tragedy, the focus of media frenzy and, most importantly, a talking point for tolerance all over the world.

Six years later, the buzz of the Shepard case has faded. However, "The Laramie Project" - which premiered Off-Broadway in 2000 and has gone on to become a popular regional theater and campus production as well as an HBO film - has helped preserve a national anti-hate crime dialogue.

A scene from Ohio University's production of 'The Laramie Project.'"This is the type of production that, on college campuses, really gets conversation going," says Director Shelley Delaney, an assistant professor in the School of Theater who suggested "The Laramie Project" to the school's performance selection committee last year.

In October, the school brought this dialogue to Athens, a small university town, population 21,342. For several hours a day, six days a week, from the first day of fall quarter, 10 theater students rehearsed for 73 roles, with each actor playing as few as seven and as many as 11 parts.

"The Laramie Project" isn't like most other plays. There's no star, no complicated set, no dramatic costuming - nothing that could possibly detract from the play's message. For the most part, its the audience and the townspeople: Doc O'Connor, the limo driver who had taken Matthew to an out-of-state gay bar on several occasions; Romaine Patterson, a coffee shop friend; and Matt Galloway, the bartender who served both Matthew and his killers just hours before the attack. There's a lesbian university professor, the college student who found Matthew unconscious on the prairie, the first policewoman on the crime scene and dozens of others whose lives have been affected by the tragedy.

"It's really important that this play was done here," says junior Nate Whitmer, a theater major from Chesterton, Ind., and cast member in "The Laramie Project." "It needed to be done here, in a college town like this."

Mickey Hart, coordinator of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender programs at Ohio University, agrees.

"I think that at times in Athens we think it's relatively safe and a relatively open place for LGBT folks. But the reality is that it may not be," he says. "A few hateful people can make quite an impact in a community."

As Ohio University students become Laramie residents on stage and audience members react with tears and awe, it's clear this is more than a play. It's a chance for the cast to speak out about intolerance, bigotry and homophobia.

A scene from Ohio University's production of 'The Laramie Project.'"Any actor - anyone in theatre - wants, hopes to make a difference," Whitmer says. "And with 'The Laramie Project' you're not just entertaining, you are making a difference. I really feel blessed to be a part of it because not everybody gets to do that."

Delaney says she feels privileged to be involved with a socially relevant production like "The Laramie Project."

"But I also feel a huge sense of responsibility," she adds. "It's history - recent history - and I feel a need to be fair and responsible about it."

The cast and crew's appreciation for the play's message was amplified by an early-October campus visit by Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, who spoke to a Memorial Auditorium audience about her son's values of dignity and respect for all.

"From Judy Shepard, who had never seen 'The Laramie Project,' never read it, probably never will, we found our message was the same as hers," Whitmer says. "Judy Shepard inspired me, as she probably did everyone, to take all the knowledge we had gained from doing the show and to go outside and do something about it.

"And when we're on stage and we look out and just see a bunch of students like us, right, a bunch of college students, it's weird to think that we may have an influence over what someone believes."

Marisa Palmieri, BSJ '05, is a student writer for Ohio Today magazine.

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