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ARHS stages ‘The Laramie Project’ as immersive theater

  • Adina Chasan-Taber performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Carrington Dowe performs during rehearsal Tuesday.

  • Ellery Zonlin performs during a rehearsal for the “Laramie Project,” Tuesday, at Amherst Regional High School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adina Chasan-Taber, top left, performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Grace Robes-Kenworthy performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tristan Lewis-Schuler performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Madison Larner performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. John Bechtold looks on. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Serik White performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School’s production of the “Laramie Project,” Tuesday, at the school. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Serik White performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elsa Baxter performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nakos Maroudas performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sylvie Cove, from left, Asher Ginsburg and Zeke Ash perform during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School’s production of the “Laramie Project,” Tuesday, at the school. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sarah Van Horn performs during a rehearsal for Amherst Regional High School's production of the "Laramie Project", Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Thursday, December 06, 2018

AMHERST – Asher Ginsberg stands in a dimly lit room in Amherst Regional High School behind a bar table. “So what can I tell you about Matt?” he asks.

The 10th-grader is playing a bartender named Matt Galloway in the school’s version of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the aftermath from the 1998 brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in Laramie, Wyoming. He was found tied to a fence by a bicyclist who first mistook him for a scarecrow because his injuries were so severe.

Shepard’s beating gained national attention and was quickly condemned as a hate crime. More than a decade later, a bill partially named after him was signed into law that extended federal hate crime laws to include a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Galloway worked in the bar the night Shepard was killed and Ginsberg, embodying a shaken-up Galloway, goes on to describe what he remembers from the night, from the drink Shepard ordered to whom he left with.

When the scene is over, the audience moves out of the room and, thanks to student ushers, through the school hallway and into another scene.

The play is “immersive” meaning most scenes are spread out through the school and are performed in a loop and one can watch them in any order. A cast of about 40 students is stationed throughout the building, said director and English teacher John Bechtold.

“To our knowledge, no one has done it (The Laramie Project) in this format,” Bechtold said.

Amherst Regional High School’s opening performance of the show, co-produced by the Sexuality And Gender Alliance group (SAGA), will take place Thursday.

After the death of Shepard, the Tectonic Theater Company conducted hundreds of interviews in Laramie and wove them together to create the play.

Experiencing the play is like being the documentarian – characters look the audience in the eye and speak as if they’re being interviewed. Viewers hear from dozens of people, such as one of the few openly lesbian women in Laramie, Sheppard’s academic adviser, the boy who found him, the doctor who treated him and his close friend.

Religious leaders and a variety of average Laramie residents talk about their own views on homosexuality, many of them expressing disapproval.

Slowly, a portrait comes into focus of the town grappling with a brutal murder while having been thrust into the national spotlight.

Amherst Regional High School theater is a member of the Ghostlight Project, an alliance of theaters across the country that commits to addressing social issues and spurring discussion through their productions. Performing “The Laramie Project” is part of that commitment.

SAGA is organizing a post-show discussion as well as creating an installation art piece in the hall for viewers. Newspaper clippings about Shepard’s death, photos of him and letters of condolence sent to his parents are attached to the ends of string and hung from the ceiling in a section of the school lobby.

Before a recent play rehearsal, Zev Lane, a junior and assistant stage manager, was stringing up photos and articles as part of the display. “As a member of the LGBT community,” he said, “I thought it was important to do this show,” said. His LGBTQ literature class has been talking about the show, and he hopes it continues to create conversation.

In the process of creating the display, seeing photos of Shepard was impactful for Christina Wehrli, a vice president of SAGA. “It’s easy to forget this is a real thing,” she said. “I remember seeing his face for the first time and thinking – wow, he’s a real person.”

Amherst Regional High School’s “The Laramie Project” can be seen on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. at ARHS.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com