WEST CALDWELL, NJ — With the hopes of giving people “something to talk about,” James Caldwell High School (JCHS) drama teacher and theatre program director Greg Paradis selected “The Laramie Project” as the fall student production in order to spark awareness and discussion among both the young actors and audiences alike.
The play—inspired by the events following the brutal 1998 murder of gay college student Mathew Shepard, a hate crime that shook the town of Laramie, Wyoming to its core—will be presented at JCHS from on Friday, Nov. 15 and Saturday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee to follow on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.
“I want to start a dialogue,” said Paradis, who also serves as the theatre teacher and theatre program director for Grover Cleveland Middle School. “I want everyone to go home talking about it. The students had been asking to work on a drama for a long time—something gritty and heavier that they can really sink their teeth into.”
Paradis feels that “The Laramie Project” has provided the high school cast with a unique opportunity for “strong acting work and emotional explorations that they can really dive into.”
The New York-based Tectonic Theater Project created the play in what Paradis described as “a collective exercise by the company.” The group traveled to Laramie shortly after Shepard’s death and spent two years interviewing community members, reviewing court testimonies and news clips and condensing all the information and impressions they gathered into a three-act play, which premiered in early 2000.
“Everyone was involved in every aspect of creating the play,” said Paradis.
The play features eight actors, with each student playing many roles portraying a broad range of Laramie’s residents, including Shepard’s parents and friends; clergy members with different mindsets; the emergency room doctor who tried to save Shepard’s life; minority students who identified with Shepard for various reasons; and many others. This included members of the Tectonic Theater Project, who interviewed all these community members as part of their extensive research.
Shepard does not appear as a character in the play. Instead, the storyline focuses on the aftermath of his murder, the reactions it elicited and how it impacted the conservative northwestern community.
“This community had to rise up from the ashes and define itself,” said Paradis. “The town of Laramie struggled with its collective identity. People asked, ‘Are we a place where hate crimes happen?’”
The questions and reflections posed by the play reach far beyond the borders of Laramie, however, as they address “serious issues that were relevant in 1998 and are still relevant today,” according to Paradis.
“I want the audience to leave the play starting a conversation,” he said. “Why is it still relevant 20 years later? Why do we have to assert our right to exist as a minority? Why do gay community members feel the need to stay hidden? A lot has changed in the past 20 years, but surprisingly, not a lot has changed either.”
Although “The Laramie Project” revolves around the hate crime committed against Shepard for his sexual orientation, Paradis agrees that the show can also resonate with anyone who has ever witnessed or experienced bullying or targeting for various reasons.
As the members of the Tectonic Theater Project did 20 years ago, each student involved in the JCHS production conducted his or her own research on a particular aspect of “the world of the play,” Paradis said. Topics included the history and culture of Laramie, the history of the gay rights movement, the incidence of hate crimes, religious influences and perspectives and other relevant topics.
Rather than following a traditional linear plot, the play’s unconventional structure incorporates “moment work,” where individual moments of the interview process with the Laramie residents are isolated and built upon to create a narrative that captures the different voices of the town.
Even though they are following the original script, Paradis said the JCHS students added some improvisational touches “to take ownership of it and make it their own.”
“The students experienced a totally new way of approaching acting and the play, something they can apply to different aspects of life by keenly observing how others behave,” he said.
Due to the show’s mature themes, content and language, the recommended age for viewing the show is 13 and up. Paradis recommends parental discretion for anyone younger.
Immediately following Friday’s performance, a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project will be present for a talkback with members of the audience.
Tickets will be available for sale on the school’s website.