“It really is life changing.”
So says a member of the American Theatre Company’s Youth Conservatory as the group researched in Wyoming for their production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. This talented group of young people traveled from Chicago to Laramie in June, and met with the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Laramie Project Specialist Susan Burk, Matt’s childhood friend Zach Schneider, and several of the “real people” who are characters in the Laramie Project plays. In the shadow of Matt Shepard’s memorial bench on the University of Wyoming campus, Susan and Zach shared their experiences and answered questions about the play, Matthew, and how their lives had been affected by Matt’s death.
The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later are theatrical works which document the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in an anti-gay hate crime in Laramie in 1998. The works were created by Tectonic Theater Project, and the young cast of ATC’s production said the subject matter can be emotionally difficult. “It opened my eyes,” said Janyce Caraballo. “I guess I lived in a bubble where I was used to people being loving and supportive it’s actually taken a toll on me.”
The group met with five Laramie residents who are featured in the plays, and actor Taylor Talhame said it can be a bit intimidating to meet the person you are going to play “They’re human beings so when you portray them you really want to do them justice,” Taylor said. “You want to get as much information as you can about them and just connect it with yourself so you can be the true character, so it’s very exciting but it’s very nerve-wracking.” Serena Sofley said making the trip from Chicago to Laramie made the work more than just the emotional reaction to reading about an event, or a play about the event. It became more truthful for her. “Humans’ relationships with each other, and connecting to another human, is a lot different than picturing something or thinking about how you would sympathize,” she said. “If you’re actually in front of somebody, like, this is a person, it’s a lot different.” Although it’s been almost fourteen years since Matthew’s murder, Sofely says this play absolutely has lessons for all generations. “I think there’s so much to learn about compassion and empathy and acceptance,” and she says she hopes the audience will understand that. “The impact that it has for other generations, and how it doesn’t stop at the event, I mean obviously it’s 14 years later and we’re here … you know it could be infinite, you shouldn’t try to put things behind you as a person.”
Susan Burk’s work for the Foundation is to support productions of the Laramie Project plays across the country and overseas, and engage in related projects including curriculum and community discussions. She says it’s important that young people understand The Laramie Project isn’t about a piece of history that’s done and gone. “These issues of hate and violence continue in our world, and youth are our best hope to bring about change. We commend this young cast for taking on the challenge of embracing these issues.”
The ATC Youth Ensemble members include Janyce Caraballo, Charlie Diaz, Christian Helem, Andrew Korzenik, Serena Sofley, and Taylor Talhame, and Education Fellow Zach Garcia. They were lead on this journey by ATC Artistic Director PJ Paparelli, and Education Director Lynne Pace Green.
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later runs July 18th through the 24th at ATC in Chicago.
For ticket information, and more about ATC and the Youth Ensemble, you can visit their website at http://www.atcweb.org/