The Opportunity and the Challenge of ‘The Laramie Project’

Photo: A moment at the end of Act One of The Laramie Project.

The high school play, the annual tradition that, at times, have a certain “sameness” to what is produced. 

The most popular plays performed by US high schools include romances (Almost, Maine); Shakespeare (Midsummer Night Dream) the classics (Our Town) along with comedies (Noise Off, Harvey, You Can’t Take It With You) and dramas (The Crucible, 12 Angry Jurors), all trendy choices  for multiple decades.

And schools select those scripts for very practical reasons.

“Most high school teachers need a big cast, lots of female roles, and something that won’t scare your grandma,” said Don Corathers, editor of Dramatics, a monthly magazine for theater students and teachers, speaking to NPR in 2015. 

This fall, Belmont’s production isn’t trying to scare away anyone. Rather, this year’s play is seeking to bring a thought-provoking performance that centers on themes and events that are as current as today’s news.

“Every show is an educational opportunity,” said Ezra Flam, Belmont High School’s Theater Specialist and Director/Producer of the Performing Arts Company, who selected The Laramie Project. 

The Laramie Project will be performed Thursday through Friday, Nov. 5, 6 and 7 at 7 p.m. at the Belmont High School auditorium. Tickets are $15 adults, $10 non-BHS students, no charge for Belmont High students and staff.

The three-act play concerns the 1998 murder of Matthew Sheppard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, chronicled by the Tectonic Theater Project which traveled to Laramie, Wyoming to interview the town’s inhabitants about the incident that was determined to be a hate crime.

The Laramie Project is hardly standard fare for a high school play – the content focuses on homophobia, violence, and gay acceptance – and still generates controversy around the country (The play is the most objected to by school administrators and community groups). This production comes with a caution that it is unsuitable for children and parental discretion is strongly advised for young teens.

But the play, according to Flam, is meant to challenge the actors and the audience, as to confront attitudes and prejudices, both personal and communal.

The Belmontonian: Why select a play with such strong adult content?

Flam: “One of my priorities for the fall play is that we do Shakespeare in alternating years, last year being Twelfth Night. In other years, my goal is to expose or students and audiences to a variety of theatrical genres. Every show is an educational opportunity, whether that is in the content, the form or the technical aspects of the show. I chose The Laramie Project because of both the acting opportunities and the important themes and message.

The Belmontonian: Did you discuss this with students before deciding on the play? What has been their reaction?

Flam: “Students have been extremely receptive to the show, from the moment I announced it. Most students hadn’t heard of the play, but throughout the fall as I have explained what the show is about or students have read it, I’ve heard a lot of comments along the lines of, ‘that sounds really awesome,’ or ‘that’s really cool that we’re doing this kind of play.'”

“I think as the cast and crew started reading and rehearsing the show they ‘got it’ very quickly and tuned in right away to what was important and production-worthy about the show. I’ve also heard from a lot of parents and community members who are very happy to see the show presented in Belmont because they recognize the importance and opportunity of bringing these themes to our community.”

The Belmontonian: The Laramie Project is not your typical play; short scenes, actors playing multiple roles, speaking directly to the audience. Has it been a challenge for you in helping the actors with this technique that they may not have had experience?

Flam: “It’s certainly been a different kind of rehearsal process. I actually think it’s been a great dovetail with the new theater classes the school is offering this year. In both rehearsal and theater class there’s been a little bit of ‘back to fundamentals’ in the acting process. It’s not just about the staging or the production but about analyzing the text and talking a lot of about what’s going on underneath the words, then going back and translating that into performance.”

The Belmontonian: Unlike other plays, you are reaching out to the community and audience before the performances and after Friday’s show to discuss the issues and concerns this show highlights. What are you attempting to accomplish?

Flam:The Laramie Project is a show that almost demands this, particularly in a High School production. The themes and content of this show are powerful and emotional, and audiences are going to have a strong desire to talk about the show, so we’re trying to make room for that to happen.”

“One of the themes of the show is the ways in which Laramie represents not just a single town or moment in history, but all of America. It asks us to take a look at our own communities and draw comparisons to Laramie.”

The Belmontonian: What does this play mean to you?

Flam: “I first saw and read The Laramie Project when I was in college. It’s an extremely powerful piece of theater and one that is unforgettable. It’s one of the shows that helped me understand the power theater has to transform; to leave an audience changed affected or different in some way after seeing it. Giving the chance for our students and community to share even a small part of that experience means a lot to me.”

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