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Laramie revisited: Play looks at hate crime’s effect on community a decade later

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A spotlight and an actor. In the upcoming Bethel College production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, audiences may experience a different type of performance than they’re used to, including this stripped-down setting.

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later belongs to the genre of documentary theater, or verbatim theater – plays that take as their script (in whole or in part) interviews, texts, journals, narratives and/or other first- person accounts that are selectively edited to produce a cohesive whole.

The Bethel theater department will present the play Nov. 10, 11 and 12 in Krehbiel Auditorium in the Fine Arts Center. Performance time is 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, and Friday, Nov. 11, with a 1:30 p.m. matinee Saturday, Nov. 12.

The original play The Laramie Project was a response to a hate crime that took place in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998, when Matthew Shepherd, a 21-year-old gay man, was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die of his wounds and exposure.

Shepherd’s murder profoundly affected the community. The Laramie Project was based on interviews with more than 200 people from Laramie and the surrounding area.

The play debuted in Denver in early 2000, crafted by director Moisés Kaufman and members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project, who had conducted the interviews and then wrote and performed the resulting play.

The Laramie Project ran off-Broadway through September 2000, and has since had hundreds of productions in regional and college theaters, including at Bethel College in 2002. HBO produced a film version starring Laura Linney, Peter Fonda and Steve Buscemi.

In 2008, the Tectonic Theater Project decided to revisit Laramie and re-interview many of the subjects from The Laramie Project, along with Aaron McKinney, one of the two young men convicted of Shepherd’s murder. The result was The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.

In both plays, each actor portrays multiple characters. John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts, directed The Laramie Project at Bethel in 2002, while Caitlin Buerge, a 2008 Bethel graduate and resident director of Haury Hall, is directing Ten Years Later. She said she has been pleased to see the actors’ progress, especially because the roles are all difficult ones.

“It will be very much a person sitting and talking,” she said. “There’s not a lot of what would be typical stage movement. It’s a lot of spotlighting.

“It’s challenging for the actors,” she added, “because they don’t have a lot to use to portray their whole bunch of different characters. Without [much] set or props, they really have to rely on their acting ability – which I think, again, marks what amazing talent we have at Bethel.”

Cast for The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is Creigh Bartel, sophomore from Newton, Jacob Brubaker, sophomore from Miami, Ariz., Ryan Goertzen, senior from Goessel, Taylor McCabe-Juhnke, senior from North Newton, Audra Miller, junior from Hesston, Sarah Pohl, senior from Moundridge, Megan Siebert, senior from Topeka, Dalton Smith, sophomore from Burrton, and Mycah Westhoff, freshman from Newton.

The crew is Caleb Epp, freshman from Marion, S.D., stage manager; Eric Goering, senior from McPherson, lighting; Katie Schmidt, freshman from Newton, costumes; Tanner Smith, sophomore from Hiawatha, props; and Megan Upton-Tyner, technical director.

Buerge said even though there are no sets and very little movement during scenes, the play doesn’t need much for the message to get across.

“I like the way in which the play speaks for itself, without the sets and the movement,” she said. “It really does rely on actual words, and it takes away from the idea of going to see a production. It breaks down what we would call the image of the fourth wall.”

She also wants to make sure audiences look at The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later not only as a play, but also as what it is: a documentary.

“We very much stress to the audience that they are seeing actors on stage – they are not seeing people doing a production in front of them,” Buerge said. “It’s real words of real people. [The actors] are not just playing characters, they are representing real people. A lot of college students don’t get to experience [performing in or seeing] a show like that.”

The play has a strong message about how to cope with great tragedy. Along with her high hopes for the production, Buerge said she is a bit worried about the main message getting lost.

“It goes farther than just talking about gay rights, just talking about a horrific crime,” she said. “It talks about how we cope with this type of situation and how we are so quick to want to put things behind us that sometimes it’s hard for us to realize what we have learned and for us to go through that process.

“My biggest fear is that people can get so distracted by ‘this was a gay kid who was killed’ that they don’t see the real heart of the story. I don’t want it to be a fight about what is right, being gay or not.

“Everybody has gone through loss and mourning and coping,” Buerge continued. “I think [this play] is a way to facilitate conversation about those things, though not to ignore the fact that it is about a hate crime – it is important to be able to discuss sexual identity or conflicts with gay rights. It really does give a platform to start discussing that. I’m very excited that CIC classes are reading the original play, because I think it will prepare them for seeing the show.”

Some sections of College Issues Colloquy, which all freshman take who enter Bethel in the fall, are reading The Laramie Project. In addition, there will be a four-part convocation series starting Friday, Nov. 4, that will discuss issues of “Sexual Identity in Church and Society.”

When Buerge was asked to direct one of Bethel’s four theater productions for 2011-12, she chose The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later for many reasons, she said.

“When I was a senior at Bethel, I did my senior seminar on researching documentary theater and the inherent ability documentary theater has to help broken communities. Last year, Megan Tyner [who directs Bethel’s theater program] asked if I would be interested in directing a play. I first had a different play in mind but then I thought it would be really important for me to do something that would reflect the work I did as a student.”

Buerge majored in communication arts with a concentration in theater at Bethel. Though she is excited about directing a Bethel production, she said she is also nervous because of her lack of previous experience.

“The only time I directed anything before this was a seven-minute scene in a class Megan Tyner taught when I was a junior,” Buerge said. “I was an assistant director for one show, but other than that I didn’t do any technical stuff. So this is by far the most directing I’ve done. My fear [has been] that I will have really big ideas that can’t happen, so I’m trying to rein that in.”

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later will be on the Krehbiel Auditorium stage Nov. 10-12. Ticket prices are $10 for adults, $8 for adults age 65 and older and non-Bethel students, and $5 for Bethel students. Because of its difficult subject matter, this play is not considered appropriate for children. Tickets may be purchased at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center, open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., phone 316-284-5205, or at the door.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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