Young actors tell tragic story

Arts: Students contemplate shocking death of Matthew Shepard in play

By: Tammy Rollie

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jun 04, 2014 08:38 am

From left, Alberta High School of Fine Arts students Haley Gray, Meghan Petaske and Austin Halarewich rehearse for their upcoming performance of The Laramie Project. Performances take place at the Rotary Performing Arts Centre June 5-7 at 7:30 p.m.
From left, Alberta High School of Fine Arts students Haley Gray, Meghan Petaske and Austin Halarewich rehearse for their upcoming performance of The Laramie Project. Performances take place at the Rotary Performing Arts Centre June 5-7 at 7:30 p.m.
Jordan Verlage/OWW

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Fifteen years after the tragic death of Matthew Shepard outraged thousands of people, drama students at an Okotoks high school are sharing the controversial story in a play unlike any they’ve performed.

Thirteen Alberta High School of Fine Arts advanced acting program students are taking on the most challenging project of their lives this week. They will portray 60 characters who reflect on the story of two young men who robbed, beat and left 21-year-old Shepard, a gay university student, tied to a fence in a dramatic three-act play called The Laramie Project, named for the town in Wyoming where the crime took place.

“This is unlike any production the community of Okotoks has ever been a part of,” said James Keary, the school’s artistic and technical director. “The play has the potential to change this community in terms of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Criticism, judgment, prejudice, the inability to accept differences - all of these things when we act on them result in hate and loss.”

Keary said the students portray real people impacted by the crime who talk about the incident through a series of monologues and interactions.

“It really talks about bullying, it talks about individual differences and how we all have our criticism about people who are different, which is human nature,” he said.

The reason Keary selected the play was because it impacts him directly.

Keary was Shepard’s drama teacher for three months when the teen temporarily attended a Manitoba school he taught at in 1995, three years prior to Shepard’s tragic death.

“This is a very personal journey and project for me,” he said. “I wanted to attempt this project because I have a cast to do justice to this type of production.”

When Keary pitched the play to his students, he had them watch the trailer for the movie The Matthew Shepard Story and discuss the play with their parents. He said his idea was met with unanimous support.

Keary felt his students were ready to dig deep and tell the emotional story in a way that would touch audiences.

“They’ve been challenged to dig down and raise the bar and they’re doing that,” he said. “They know it has the power to change minds.”

Keary was right. The students delved into their characters, some taking on as many as 11, as they prepared the last three months.

“We focused on the expression of the character, the development of the character and the emotion of the characters as they are affected by this hate crime,” he said. “This journey will cause everyone to have an emotional thought provoking experience that we feel the town of Okotoks will be better because of it.”

Drama student Josh Koshman portrays seven characters, ranging from a bartender to a minister, and describes the performance as his most difficult yet.

“I’ve never done a script like this in my life,” he said. “It’s definitely a struggle, but these actors here are very capable of stepping up to that challenge of multiple characters.”

The Grade 12 student said The Laramie Project is his first serious major production and as most of the play consisting of monologues it added to the challenge.

“It’s a very difficult script to memorize,” he said. “Parts are very serious, very sad, very tragic. There are scenes of reflection and there are scenes of resolution.”

Richard Cole, who has been in the advanced acting program for three years and plays 11 characters, feels The Laramie Project has the ability to change people’s lives.

“I felt this was something people have to see,” he said. “It’s very real. These are real people we are playing. These are real words they’ve said.”

Cole said the play had an impact on his own views of other people.

“It’s definitely pushed me in the right direction as to how to treat people, how not to judge people,” he said. “There’s people in the show that are racist, homophobic because of the conditions they were raised in. It’s given me more awareness of why people think those things and how we can stop ourselves from passing judgments without knowing a person and their situation.”

The Laramie Project takes place at the Rotary Performing Arts Centre June 5-7 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 plus GST in advance or $20 plus GST at the door (if available) and can be purchased by calling 403-938-3204 or at fchs.fsd38.ab.ca


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