High School presents ‘Laramie Project,’ continuing dialogue on present-day prejudices | SummitDaily.com

High School presents ‘Laramie Project,’ continuing dialogue on present-day prejudices

During a rehearsal, Summit High School senior Cait McCluskie, left, runs through lines of the school's latest production, "The Laramie Project," with fellow members of the cast. The popular play, which runs this week, examines the death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in October 1998.
Courtesy of Summit School District |

With a political environment in the United States arguably as charged as ever serving as the backdrop, Summit High School is embarking upon unexplored territory in providing the local community a chance to continue the dialogue about the rights and freedoms of certain fellow Americans.

To move that conversation along, the school’s performing arts department offers its rendition of “The Laramie Project,” a play that examines the October 1998 murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The production is the first of its kind to be presented at the high school, coming with it a notable social message addressing homosexuality in America, how hate-crime laws have changed in the years since Shepard’s brutal death approaching two decades ago and is more a reflection of society than stance on it, based on where the culture positions itself today.

The feature was chosen well before recent news that North Carolina passed a statewide law blocking local legislation guaranteeing protections in the workplace for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, otherwise known by the acronym LGBT. On the heels of this action, the production is perhaps more relevant than ever as this difficult discussion persists throughout the nation.

“The whole political sphere of what’s happening with our country right now is just crazy,” said Cait McCluskie, the play’s only senior. “We’ve never done a show that’s this impactful and has this much of a political voice to it. Just to put our own perspective and our own voice out there is so important and to make people talk about these issues because I think that’s one of the things, no matter what side you fall, so many people are avoiding it.”

“The Laramie Project” debuted in 2000 not far away, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, after the Tectonic Theater Project began research into the production in Laramie, Wyoming, just a month Shepard’s murder. Since that time, it has been performed by any number of companies across the United States and in several international cities, from professional companies and community troupes to colleges and high schools.

The work was also adapted into a 2002 film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before being broadcast on HBO later that year. To date, estimates put the total number of viewers of “The Laramie Project” at north of 30 million people in the United States.

The circumstances of Shepard’s death in many ways initiated the national conversation about homosexuality and helped get the ball rolling on state and federal laws against hate crimes. Eleven years later, Pres. Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, better known as just the Matthew Shepard Act, on Oct. 28, 2009. The piece of legislation expanded the United States’ hate crime laws to include crimes based on an individual’s sexual orientation, disability or gender identification.

(James Byrd, Jr. was an African-American in Texas who was lynched by three white men in June 1998. The three since convicted murderers severely beat Byrd before dragging him behind a pickup truck for three miles of road. He died during the encounter.)

Summit’s turn

Now, in coordination with the Silverthorne-based Lake Dillon Theatre Company, and in partnership with the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), Summit High School puts its own spin on the composition for both the school and county population to see. The school felt it was an opportune moment to unfurl this type of presentation.

“I’ve been with the district for 11 years, and, while we’ve done some heavy plays — we’ve dealt with death, as a number of plays do, and tragedies — we haven’t had a social issue like this,” said Julie McCluskie, the district’s director of communications. “I think it was the right time. These students are ready, I think our community is ready, as well as I think our high school and Summit County community.”

Many among the high school’s cast have never performed in a high school production, and, for some involved, it will be their first-ever play. But all recognize the significant weight that comes with putting a show of this magnitude.

“We almost feel a duty to do it well,” said junior Orion Van Oss, a veteran of the stage, “because it’s real, because we have to respect Matthew Shepard and (want) do it right. It’s still such a relevant problem. If we can make me people realize and touch people in the community with this show, then I think we will have succeeded.”

“I hope that it gets people to think about the topic,” added freshman Victoria Cadwallader, who has a background in speech and debate, but will be marking her first play. “I have a lot of friends who are bi- or gay or pan(sexual); and, so doing this topic, it shows me how everyone has different views on it. I’m not saying people should change (their mind) just based on the play, but I hope that they think about the subject.”

Local touch

The high school’s version will be an intimate affair, with a set built for an up-close and personal experience for approximately 100 audience members per show who will also sit on stage. Joining them will be the play’s entire cast, each of who has multiple roles and will never leave the set.

Projection screens that will run slideshow visuals throughout the performance and imaginative professional lighting should help lend new insight and creativity to the storyline, where fervent Christianity and anti-gay motivations of late-‘90s Laramie are forced to come to terms with the more belligerent splinters of these philosophies. So far, those in the know on the play’s arrangement, from school leaders to members of the school populace and citizens of Summit County, have all been very supportive of the decision to host the production.

“The administration is informing students that it’s OK to be who you are,” said sophomore Carter Schumacher, who is openly gay and has multiple roles in the production. “Friends have said, ‘I’m glad that they’re doing this play because people don’t accept this into their life.’ These kinds of plays and art works are important because it lets you know that it’s not just one perspective. It doesn’t matter what you’re into, just be proud of who you are.”

Under the direction of the Lake Dillon Theatre Company’s Chris Alleman and production team of the high school’s theater and drama faculty, Scott Porter and Kylie Lowe, “The Laramie Project” promises to be unlike anything seen before at Summit High. And leaders within the county are already taking notice.

“Plays are powerful things, and they allow students to have a conversation about the issues in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Thomas Davidson, who serves as the county’s first openly-gay commissioner and also helped introduce the GSA to Summit High in 2013. “So I’m very proud of the school for doing a production like this, which can further the conversation around those issues.”

Those students acting in the production agree and are excited for large crowds as they help to push this sensitive and emotional discussion forward, particularly within such a loaded national context.

“There’s still so much homophobia and violence against the LGBTQ community,” said senior Cait McCluskie. “The fact that we can get out there and say this isn’t OK, and get the conversation started, I think it’s the best we can do.”

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