Lindenwood’s production is directed by graduate student Rebecca Helms who spoke with me in a telephone interview. One of the actors, Chad Snider, was also present. Helms got her undergraduate degree in theatre education at Lindenwood and is currently pursuing an MFA in directing. She also teaches children’s acting classes in Foundry Arts Center (with summer programs, as well). Chad is a Lindenwood student.
Andrea Braun (AB): Why are you doing The Laramie Project right now?
Rebecca Helms (RH): Unfortunately, the hate crimes, suicides, etc. that are taking place in our society now prompted my thinking about the show, but really, it’s always relevant. Also, in casting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I found a lot of talented people got left out. This is a show with 25 people. We cast within the theatre department and outside it, as well, both among non-majors and faculty members. It’s a true community effort.
AB: What is your history with the play?
RH: I saw The Laramie Project as an usher on its first night some time back and never forgot how it made me feel. I actually came back and saw every performance of the three-week run. The show is being done to hold a mirror up to society, the audience, and to make people think. I will never forget the absolute awe I felt. . . [and that] hatred hurts
AB: Beyond the obvious, what do you want audiences to get from the piece?
RH: It’s an awareness show that everyone should have the chance to see. Bullying is everywhere and the internet makes it worse. The hate is devastating and it’s all over chat rooms; probably 8o% of my best friends are gay males, and I see what they have to go through. Hate is prevalent in a lot of places. A character in the play (Jedadiah Schultz), one who’s kind of unsure about how he feels at first, finally says, ‘How did I ever let that stuff make me feel like I’m different from you?
AB: Do you believe [The Laramie Project] presents a balanced view of the problem?
RH: Oh, yes. It shows opinions across the board—a very balanced approach. It shows the gays, the perpetrators of the crime, law enforcement officers, member of the community– reflections on the society as a whole, and all points of view are represented.
AB: How do the actors respond to their characters?
RH: They are very invested. The biggest problem we have is people having to play characters whose beliefs are very different from theirs. For example, we have two criminal justice professors in the cast. One of them, Jennifer Lorenz just ‘got it’ right away; she’s seen all kinds of people come through the courts.
Chad Snider (CS): I play Rulon Stacy, the C.E.O. of the local hospital, an older guy who doesn’t believe in the “gay lifestyle.” [Even though I’m gay] I still understand him. I see where he’s coming from.
AB: Is the play weakened by one-dimensional characters? Might it veer into stereotype?
RH: That is a danger, but Dr. Rebecca Hilliker who directed the production that had such an impact on me said: ‘Use the text. . . these words came verbatim from these townspeople, so it’s up to [the actors] to make them real.’
AB: What’s the atmosphere like in rehearsal?
RH: Well, we’ve cried buckets of tears (laughs) but rehearsals can still be fun. We have ongoing jokes, the company gets gold stars from the director when they do well. We’re all equal in all this. [It is] definitely fun, even with heavy material. I have a list of rehearsal rules and expectations, and the last rule is: Unwind. You can read dramas all day long, but this actually happened, so the experience is intense. Everyone needs to find a way to come down from it—go out and have some laughs, read a book, take a bubble bath—just get out of the mindset. These 25 people are a great group and everybody’s really ‘in it’; that is, everybody responds and respects their own parts. You always want an actor to bring a piece of themselves to a character. I’m thrilled [and] couldn’t be more thrilled.
AB: Have you encountered any resistance to doing The Laramie Project at Lindenwood?
RH: Absolutely not, [but] I was surprised to find out it wasn’t a well-known show, even among my gay friends and colleagues.
AB: Have you heard whether Fred Phelps and the Westboro folks are planning to make an appearance?
RH: No, but if they do, we’ll be serving cookies and lemonade from the actors and the [Gay Straight] Alliance. They’re bound to get hot and thirsty from all that yelling (laughs). I would never call him, but I wouldn’t mind if they showed up, and maybe Phelps will come. You know, what continues to amaze me is what anyone could have against Matthew Shepard. He was eager, happy. A college student looking forward to his future. It’s hard for me to imagine doing anything hurtful to this human being. Then the unthinkable happened, and there were all kinds of collateral damage. For example, the officer Reggie Fluty, who assisted taking him down from the fence, was exposed to HIV. She had to go through the ATV drug protocol, lost her hair and had a really hard time. But neither she nor her family bears any ill will toward Matthew. They were all victims of this hatred.
CS: I want to add that I’m really enjoying the process and seeing how the actors react to each other. I think it’s going to be a fantastic show
RH: And I want to especially thank Lindenwood, and two professors in particular for allowing me to do this, Larry Quiggins, associate Dean and Department Chair and the Dean of Performing Arts, Donnell Walsh.
Helms also passed along a touching statement from a student in support of The Laramie Project that I think deserves to be printed in its entirety:
Katherine Welborn, 18, wrote: “The Laramie Project has been very empowering for me, as a bisexual woman. Growing up in Tennessee, I was raised around harsh views that homosexuality is wrong and should not be tolerated. I saw my gay friends being bullied and harassed for no other reason than their sexual orientation and was even bullied myself just for even being friends with them. For these reasons, I have been extremely timid to be open about my views and my being bisexual, but the story of Matthew Shepard and The Laramie Project has encouraged me to embrace my feelings and who I am, and stare down those ignorant people who would try to oppress and harass gay people. And, I think that seeing The Laramie Project would be eye-opening for so many people and could spread a message of peace and love to people who might not get it any other way.”
For more information, please visit http://www.lindenwood.edu/center/more_Laramie.asp. Admission is free.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT