High Drama

A play about small-town prejudice and murder has become a common teaching tool at area schools.

While Roosevelt High School drama students rehearse the colorful French comedy The Madwoman of Chaillot, and Franklin High plans a spring production of the musical Fame, students at the Bush School are preparing for the Wednesday, Feb. 1, opening of a play dealing with sexual orientation, small-town dynamics, and murder.

The Laramie Project is based on events that occurred in Laramie, Wyo., eight years ago, when young Matthew Shepard was killed in a gay-bashing incident. Monologues from over 80 residents of the town, interviewed shortly after Shepard's death by a group of New York actors, make up the bulk of the play.

This may seem like edgy fare for students, but Bush isn't the first Northwest school to produce the script. In the past three years, it's been presented by Lakeside, University Prep, West Seattle High, and Blanchet, among others. "It's been called the Our Town of this generation," Lakeside drama teacher Mark Sheppard says.

Mark Gallagher, drama department director at the Bush School, was inspired to produce the play when he took a group of students to see it in 2001 at the Empty Space Theatre. He sees the play as a prime educational opportunity: "I wanted the students to realize that there are many other issues of diversity . . . and just because we live in Seattle, [that doesn't mean we aren't] in our own bubble just like small towns similar to Laramie."

While The Laramie Project has been banned in some places (for instance, by Vancouver, B.C.'s Surrey School Board in 2004), Gallagher encountered very little opposition from staff, faculty, or parents—all of whom he says were very supportive of his decision. The Bush School has been known to produce "offbeat" plays during the winter, according to Alexandra Keyes, a member of The Laramie Project team. Last winter, the drama department ran the atypical musical Bat Boy, inspired by a headline in the Weekly World News tabloid.

Participating students have a firm grasp on the play's bigger issues, but some relate to it more personally. Sophomore Alex Smith, whose brother is gay, says, "This experience has really helped me see everything [my brother] has to go through."

The students realize that some of their classmates will have trouble accepting the play, either due to their own belief system or unwillingness to open their minds.

"Kids our age like to be ignorant sometimes, mainly those trying to be cool," says Molly Spier, a sophomore. "My sister is handicapped, and two people tried to prevent her from graduating."

With such a heavy subject to deal with, Gallagher wanted to make sure students were as prepared as possible. Together, they perused countless articles (mainly from Laramie publications), viewed the recent film Brokeback Mountain, and undertook different exercises, gaining perspective along the way.

His biggest struggle was "getting the actors to work without judgment. To present a mosaic and have the audience do the work." He adds, "The best reward was seeing them get excited. One of the students found a Web site on her own time for the Matthew Shepard Foundation that promotes ending hate in school settings, and we decided to sell the wristbands the foundation created during intermission."

With many underlying issues introduced in the play, the students aren't looking for solutions but rather a sense of awareness in the community.

"I think this will open people's eyes to the fact that stuff like this happens all around the world, and so close to home," says Maddie Noonan, a sophomore. "This is a message to say, 'Wake up America.'"

khwang@seattleweekly.com

The Laramie Project plays at 7 p.m. Wed., Feb. 1–Sat., Feb. 4, and 2 p.m. Sun., Feb. 5. The Bush School, 3400 E. Harrison St., 206- 322-7978 for reservations.

 
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