The Laramie Project

October 31, 2015

This year’s fall play, “The Laramie Project,” will end its three-night run of performances tonight.

“The Laramie Project,” based on a true story and written by Moisés Kaufman, is set in Laramie, Wyoming, in the aftermath of the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard. In the play, Matthew is a college student battling homophobia. He was kidnapped, severely beaten, and left to die in a gruesome way because of his sexual orientation.

The play draws on several interviews of Laramie residents, conducted by the Tectonic Theater Project, as they reflect their own opinions about the crime. The play teaches the audience about prejudice and tolerance in social education as an inspiration to battle homophobia.

Director Jeffrey Draper encourages people to come watch the show to learn about the violence and discrimination against the LGBTQA+ community that still occurs today.

“It’s an amazing story,” Draper said. “It transforms a true tragic story into a story that can change the future. I truly enjoy it and it adds a personal element that teaches audiences about the violent events at that time.”

Auditions for the cast were held during the week of Aug. 31. The main cast consisting of 20 students as well as the swing cast began rehearsing for the play in mid-September. They prepared for the roles by interviewing community members. They used these responses from their community to create monologues during the show.

The swing cast, or understudy performers, has their own rehearsals and acts as the main cast in case the lead is unable to perform.

The play is divided into three acts, with more than 10 actors portraying more than one character role. All actors are given at least one solo piece during the course of the play.

Junior Emre Ezer reflects on the new element this year by performing as multiple characters on stage. Emre plays four different characters in the play: Andy Paris, Jonas Slonaker, Harry and Bill McKinney.

“It can be difficult at times, but all in all, I think it is very rewarding and a fantastic learning experience,” he said. “I have to differentiate between characters and give each one a life of its own that is completely unique to the other one.”

The swing cast has also been working as much as the lead cast, memorizing lines and shadowing the main cast.

“I love being in the swing cast,” Rithi Jayam (9) said. “I get to learn more when I watch the upperclassmen perform, which helps me develop my character better.”

Ticket sales for “The Laramie Project” began last week. The main cast will perform from Friday through Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Blackford Theater. The swing cast will have their own show on Saturday at 2 p.m. also in the Blackford Theater.

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Q&A with Jeffrey Draper

Aquila: How did you feel about the cast’s first performance on Thursday? 

Jeffrey Draper: I was thoroughly impressed. I had the students each mention one of their goals tonight for what they plan to do when they perform. They are so thoughtful and smart about the way they make their choices about the things they want to do and they are truly creative artists. They express it. They have really good high goals for themselves. They make me proud with what they are intending to do and how they do it.

AQ: What do you think the audience will like most about the show?

JD: It depends on what they are here for. They’re going to see some great acting, and I am hearing that it is impressive. The Blue Sonnet last night had really positive things to say about what the students were doing as performers. It’s a very moving story. It’s very entertaining the way it is written. It has some humor in it, but it’s meant to touch people. We had people crying last night in a good way. I am hoping that they are moved. We will see.

AQ: What’s different about this show and why isn’t there anyone backstage?

JD: We don’t need it because the cast has very little set moving, and the cast can do it on there own. No black outs. When people come out dressed in black and do a set change, I just have the cast do it as they enter or exit. It saves time and makes the show move better. It would have been superfluous to have them anyway.

AQ: What went into choosing the background music for the play?

JD: I pulled music from one particular composer. He’s very good. He did the new Spielberg movie that’s out, and a bunch of soundtracks from other movies. They just automatically tie into the show. Everything that went into this that is creative is Mattie’s lightings. We did one cool thing this year where she put in a lot of programmed lights. LED’S along the back to create the last image. The last words of the play are ‘The twinkling lights of Laramie, Wyoming’, and you can actually see the lights. It’s really beautiful.

Senior Rishabh Chandra performs in last fall play

Senior Rishabh Chandra plays a lead role in his last fall play of high school. Throughout his four years as part of the Harker Conservatory, he has played a variety of characters, ranging from an Indian restaurant owner to the father of a girl who committed suicide.

In “The Laramie Project,” he plays Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s father; the priest who runs Matthew’s vigil after his death; Greg Pierotti, a reporter for the Tectonic Theater company; and Detective Sergeant Hing, who investigates Matthew’s case.

He found that the truthfulness of the of the story and the reactions of the characters in The Laramie Project greatly resonated with him.

Rishabh Chandra (12) portrays Dennis Shepard while reading a statement in court. This will be Rishabh's last fall play.
Kshithija Mulam
Rishabh Chandra (12) portrays Dennis Shepard while reading a statement in court. This will be Rishabh’s last fall play.

“There are people who are pressed in our world because of who they are, and we need to understand that,” he said.

Although this play has a serious tone, Rishabh has mostly played comedic roles in his performances. His favorite role so far is Bottom from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” last year’s fall play.

“I’m a fairly exuberant person, and the kind of comedic roles I’d gotten in the past were meant to match that,” he said. “A lot of the things that are aspects of [Bottom] are not things that I see similarities in myself.”

His favorite aspect of performing is the effect that his characters can have on audiences, especially in comedic roles.

“It’s a lot of fun because you know that at least on some level, you’re making someone feel a little bit better,” he said. ”Maybe not in a tremendously life-changing way, but at least for like five minutes.”

He feels sentimental that this is his last year in performing arts at Harker, especially because he does not plan to pursue acting in college.

“I was a very different person four years ago,” he said. “Taking part in the performing arts gives a very different take on how you approach things in your daily life. You can go out and learn things about yourself in a way that science class doesn’t teach you.”


Junior prepares to take the stage

Before each showing of “The Laramie Project”, junior Zahra Budhwani does yoga to calm herself and get into character. She gives herself statements of affirmation and feeds off of positive energy during pre-show cast rituals that help reassure and boost the confidence of each actor. After a few deep breaths and a moment of peace, Zahra is ready to take the stage.

She plays four roles, Catherine Connoly, the first openly gay university faculty member in the University of Wyoming; Zubaida Ula, an Islamic feminist who studies at the university; and two other minor roles, Murdock Cooper and Phil Labrie.

Zahra Budhwani (11) delivers a monologue. She played four roles in this year's fall play, "The Laramie Project."
Kshithija Mulam
Zahra Budhwani (11) delivers a monologue. She played four roles in this year’s fall play, “The Laramie Project.”

Because all of her characters have particular personalities and backgrounds, Zahra found it somewhat challenging to develop an accurate portrayal of each person.

“All of my characters are really distinct, so I had to do different preparation for each,” she said. For Phil Labrie, he has an Eastern European accent, which I had to spend some time developing.With Catherine Connoly, I had to work a lot on finding the truth in her character and sort of try to honor all the characters and be true to her words.”

However, Zahra did find one of her characters, Zubaida Ula, particularly simple to relate to.

“Zubaida is someone I kind of identify with because I belong to the same religion as her, and I have a lot of the same views as her,” she said.

The characters in the play are actual people who still live today, and many of the cast members, including Zahra, contacted them to gain a greater sense of who these individuals are.

“They have Facebooks, and Twitters, so I contacted a lot of my characters and I had some interaction with them and I did a lot of research,” she said. “I also talked to a lot of women and men in my community who embody those characteristics so that I could sort of imitate that and remain true to their essential characters.”

Although Zahra’s corresponding individual sent an email that she thought was automatic for all questions regarding the play, cast member Maxwell Smitherman (12) successfully contacted his character, Jedadiah Schultz, through Harker alum Zoe Woehrmann (‘15). Schultz is Zoe’s professor at New York University, and with her help, the cast of the production conducted a Skype call with him.

“We talked to him for about half an hour, and he told us a lot about [his response] to the entire thing and that was really interesting that an actual person was actually there,” Zahra said.

After seeing this play for the first time during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Zahra knew that she wanted to take part in the production because of the relevance of the storyline and characters.
“I think this play is different because it addresses a really pertinent issue that is still important today, and there are still a lot of hate crimes against people who are LGBTQA+ and there are still all these injustices that are happening, and it feels really good to tell the story.”

Getting to know the swing cast

Members of the swing cast recite their lines together and give each other feedback. The swing cast will perform this Saturday at 2 p.m.

Members of the swing cast sit in a tight circle and read their lines in the wings of the Blackford amphitheater during rehearsal. The sound of rustling scripts and impassioned monologues is punctuated only by bursts of laughter and applause as the cast members encourage each other and prepare for their performance. While the main cast of this year’s fall play “The Laramie Project” prepared for their shows, the swing cast was busy rehearsing the show, learning from their mentors in the main cast and improving their acting.

Each member of the swing cast is an understudy for the upperclassman who is playing their roles. Since members of both casts auditioned separately and play several characters, one swing may have several upperclassman mentors. While the two casts rehearsed separately, the swings watched their mentors, used the same props and blocking as the main cast and received advice from them throughout rehearsals.

Jeffrey Draper, the director of the play, spoke about what the swing cast would learn from rehearsing and watching the main cast perform.

“The [swing cast is] seeing things that they want to do after watching the main cast and seeing ways that they could do things differently, things that they’d want to do to make it their own,” Draper said. “It’s very possible that they’re going to give really unique performances.”

To give the swing cast more attention, Draper asked Cooper Sivara (‘07), who participated in Harker’s last production of “The Laramie Project” nine years ago, to direct the swing cast.

“It’s a lot of work just being in a play in general, but especially this play, it deals with a lot of really deep themes,” Sivara said. “All the swings have been great at committing to their characters, learning their lines, and overall, putting a lot of work into everything.”

During rehearsals, each swing received advice from their over-studies in the main cast. Members of the cast expressed their thoughts on having a mentor to learn from and look up to.

“We’ve gotten to learn a lot from what they have taught us from their experiences when they were younger,” said Haley Keller (10), who plays Ms. Thompson, Father Roger Schmit and Barbara Pitts and is an understudy for Amrita Singh (11) and Kaushik Sankar (12). “We can learn about new traits or new characteristics from a character that we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves.”

On Wednesday, the swing cast rehearsed in the quad at the Blackford campus under the direction of Mr. Sivara. They rehearsed their lines and discussed how to improve their performance

“You need to put a lot of emotion because it’s obviously about a really bad thing that happened, and it’s a true story so it’s hard to portray these real people,” said Meghna Phalke (9), who plays Kristin Price, Alison Mears and Jon Peacock and is an understudy for Naomi Molin (12), Kaushik Sankar (12) and Helen Woodruff (12).

The members of the swing cast see performing the play as a great opportunity, and many of them hope to be part of the main cast in years to come.

“We all love it a lot and we think it’s a really great opportunity for freshmen and sophomores to get a taste of what it’s like to be in the actual fall play,” said Haris Hosseini (9), who plays Aaron McKinney, Harry Woods, Andy Paris and Jonas Slonaker and is an understudy for Michael Jin (11) and Emre Ezer (11).

The swing cast will perform today at 2 p.m.

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