Theater department performs “The Laramie Project”

Kayla Yi, Photographer

The Blue Valley Southwest’s theater department has been hard at work memorizing lines, getting into character and rehearsing scene after scene in preparation for the production of this year’s fall play, The Laramie Project.  The school is abuzz not only with anticipation to see their friends and classmates perform but also to see a new take on a modern day issue.

“When I decide on the plays we do,” Blue Valley Southwest drama teacher Dan Schmidt said. “I think of what the student body wants to see.” The Laramie Project is well known by theater departments for its unflinching approach to homosexuality and for the controversy it can cause in the communities where it is performed.

In 1998, America was exposed to anti-gay sentiment with the murder of Matthew Shepard. Shepard, an openly gay student attending the University of Wyoming was found beaten and left to die near the town of Laramie, Wyo.

News of the beating in Laramie brought about a frenzy of questions. How could something like this happen in Small-town, USA? Did everyone in Laramie feel the same way about homosexuality? What kind of future will America face with regard homosexuality?

Playwright Moisés Kaufman, along with members of the Tectonic Theater Project, traveled down to Laramie in to answer such question. Over the course of a year, the Tectonic Theater Project collected interviews, wrote about their experiences and watched as the events unfolded in Laramie.

The result was the Laramie Project, a play written in an almost documentary style that chronicles the life of those in Laramie following Shepard’s death. A large cast of characters help deliver the story from various view points, both supporting and condemning homosexuality.

“I think that it [The Laramie Project] puts things [homosexuality] in perspective,” Senior Gabrielle Hespe said. “It shows both sides of the argument and helps you see where the other side comes from.”

Since its opening in 2000, the Laramie Project has been a topic of controversy. Many high school productions have been met with protests, picketing and angry letters from parents and anti-gay rights activists alike. Among the protesters is the Westboro Baptist Church pastor, Fred Phelps. Phelps and his church are also depicted in the play, picketing at Shepard’s funeral.

The website, an anti-gay activist group located in Massachusetts, calls the Laramie Project “a play that uses a brutal murder to demean and demonize Christians and others with traditional moral values on homosexuality in such an extreme way that they seem bigoted, hateful, and even likely to kill people.” With the controversy associated with the play, schools are sometimes reluctant to approve of the Laramie Project.

“It took five years of work to get the Laramie Project into production.” Schmidt said. Five years ago, Schmidt tried to put the Laramie Project into production at Blue Valley High School and was denied. “When I got the job [at Blue valley Southwest], I got to work trying to get this approved. I had to go through every channel known to man.”

“My parents aren’t too involved [with gay rights]. so they were a little hesitant about letting me perform,” Hespe said. “But they also know that [acting is] my passion.”

In the midst of gay and anti-gay debate, the true meaning of the play is sometimes lost.

“It’s called the Laramie Project, not the Matthew Shepard Project,” Schmidt said. “The play focuses on Laramie before, during and after Matthew Shepard’s death.”

Matthew Shepard is not only a symbol of homophobia, he is also an outsider in society. Even at Southwest, there are outsiders that cast out from their peers because of religion, race or other reasons. The Laramie Project shows its audience that all people are equal and that justice and dignity is a right that belongs to everyone