‘Laramie Project’ examines hate and hope

March 5, 2010

Kim Barber Knoll, Chair of the Theatre Arts Department, was looking for something current and contemporary for the College’s spring 2010 production.

She found her show in “The Laramie Project,” which opens March 18 at Price Theater. The play is based on the 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. Shepard was severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo. His death became a rallying cry for hate-crime legislation across the country.

Five weeks after Shepard died, playwright Moisés Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and, over the course of the next year, conducted more than 200 interviews with the townspeople.  From those interviews came “The Laramie Project,” a chronicle of the life of the town in the year after the murder. 

Today, “The Laramie Project” is one of the most-performed plays in America.

“This is a play that will resonate with and, I think, truly affect an audience,” said Kim Barber Knoll, the director and Chair of the Theatre Arts Department. “We are still facing many of the same issues today that are brought to light in this play.” 

She said she started to get phone calls from local actors interested in auditioning as soon as the season was announced last spring.

“They wanted to be part of it,” she said. “They feel, as I do, very strongly about the story that is being told and about the incredible way in which it is told.”

The play is presented in an almost documentary style, with 60 characters telling their personal stories.

“The dialogue was not created’by a playwright.  The text was taken directly from interviews with Laramie residents,” Barber Knoll said. “These are the words of the people of Laramie. The play is less about Matthew’s murder and more about the life and reaction of the town of Laramie after the crime.” 

The cast of 30 features 19 students and 11 guest actors, including College alumni and faculty. Three of the guests drive from the Atlanta area to appear in the show. One of them is Toby Smallwood of Roswell, a 1997 graduate of the College.

“I grew up in a town out West that was all white and full of hate,” he said. “I wanted to speak out against that. The irony is that I was cast as a voice of hatred in the play, but the message of hope is at the very heart of this show.”

Senior Sam Gambino said the cast feels a strong connection to the play because of its similarities to their own lives.

“In Laramie, the college and the community are very closely related to each other, just like it is here (in LaGrange),” she said.

Alumnus Ryan McWhorter, Class of 2000, agreed.

“We are a community that is very similar to Laramie, with similar issues,” he said. “This play forces you to examine what you believe and why.”

John Messerall, a guest actor from LaGrange, said the play isn’t written with a certain agenda in mind.

“It doesn’t have an ax to grind,” he said. “There is a lot of latitude for the audience to come up with their own thoughts and conclusions.”

Nate Tomsheck, Technical Director and Assistant Professor, said the play has a very personal resonance with him.

“I’m the same age as Matthew Shepard, and I was in college out West when all of this happened,” he said. “I was quite indifferent to it at the time. I wanted to do this play because it allows me to examine my life and finally ask those questions that I should have asked then.”

Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. March 18-20 and March 25-27. The play contains explicit language and mature subject matter.  It is not intended for children.

For reservations, call the box office at (706) 880-8080. In lieu of admission, patrons may make a donation to The Matthew Shepard Foundation.

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