By Alice Ramos
The story of Matthew Shepard was told on Urbana High School’s stage on Jan. 12 and 13 to evening sold-out audiences. Through a series of interviews conducted by a New York theater group in Laramie, Wyoming, soon after the murder of Shepard, “The Laramie Project” relates real events and the town’s reactions to the tragedy that happened. The journalistic approach of the play is challenging and adds a level of authenticity that allows the words of these people to truly resonate with the audience.
It may seem controversial for a high school to produce a play where a homosexual teenager is murdered in a hate crime. But Director Stephen Ward said, “The cast is ready for it. The Urbana community is one of the most accepting communities, so I’ve been very fortunate to get a lot of support for the show.”
To prepare for the show, the cast researched the people they were playing. Maria Puglisi, a cast member who played three characters, “found an email that one of my characters wrote to someone else doing the play, giving tips on how to play her. It’s easier to approach it already knowing the backstory of your character, so research was very important.” Many of the cast members went as far as to contact the real people they were portraying. Ward emphasized the importance of this research because “you owe it to that real person to be able to present them in the most appropriate manner, whether their viewpoints support your own personal opinion or not.”
Sydney Austin, an actress playing four characters, described the challenge of “playing some people that didn’t care that it happened and acting it out as if you wouldn’t care.” After Shepard’s death, many of the townspeople had no empathy for him and some went as far as defending Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the young men who tied him up to the fence and left him to die. “Trying to ask someone who is good-natured to say lines and get into the mentality of someone who has hate come to them so naturally is a challenge,” Ward explained.
Ward took on the project of directing Urbana’s first winter play with a black box theater style. The goal was to put the audience on stage to prompt a close connection between them and the actors. “Because they’re in such close proximity, every word, every movement has some sort of impact,” Ward said. The set was made up of a few benches, chairs and boxes with a backdrop, onto which a series of images were projected. According to Ward, the addition of the images elicited emotions and connected actors’ “words to the fact that this was a real fence that a real person was tied up to and left to die.” The lack of background distraction enables the audience to truly listen to the words and take in the message. Ward plans on directing many more winter productions in this style that are socially relevant to the time.
When the story of Shepard hit the news, Ward was a sophomore in high school. “I think it hit close to home that another teenager, though I didn’t know him, was murdered in such a way for such a reason,” he recalled. Although the play details the events of October 1998, events like this repeat themselves even now, 20 years later. The main goal of this play is to prevent the spreading of hate—not only hate for homosexual people but hate for any race, gender, lifestyle, occupation or person in general. Ward is not simply “doing a play about a gay kid. (I’m) doing a play about a human being who was murdered simply because someone did not like who he was.”
Seeing these horrible deaths happen every day on the news should inform us, but often it desensitizes us to the violence. Ward noted, “We put so much emphasis on the people committing the crime and the violence rather than the victims.” For us to start helping these people, we must first begin to see them as individuals with families and not feel helpless. “The Laramie Project” teaches us that “the more people that have knowledge about these things, the more people will be able to work to prevent it,” he added.
As a community, Urbana is generally very accepting of everyone. When asked why he wanted to tell this story here, Ward replied, “I think the fact that it doesn’t necessarily happen as often, that’s the perfect community to preach to. If we know that things happen in nearby communities, does that mean that we should stand by and do nothing?”
Urbana has the ability to help prevent discrimination. All we have to do is stand up and spread love.