Episode 194: Production Case Study: The Laramie Project
In 2014 drama teacher Zach Schneider produced The Laramie Project in Casper, Wyoming. Not only is Zach from Casper, he grew up with Matthew Shepard. When he asked his students how many of them had heard of Matthew Shepard, almost none of them raise their hands. Listen in to hear to hear Zach’s experience with this unique and emotional production.
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Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 194 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode194.
Now, this is one of these episodes that really speaks for itself and I want to get to it as quickly as possible.
We’re going to talk about The Laramie Project and our guest today has quite a unique perspective with the piece and with Matthew Shepard. We’re also going to talk about some strategies to producing the play and avoiding some of the common pitfalls.
All right, that’s it. That’s all I got. Let’s get to it.
LINDSAY: I am here with Zach Schneider.
LINDSAY: We are at the International Thespian Festival so we have a little bit of excited din in the air. It’s impossible to get away from.
ZACH: I don’t think you can go anywhere and get away from some of it.
LINDSAY: But that’s okay. It just gives us a nice background sound for our wonderful sound guy to deal with.
LINDSAY: How long have you been a teacher?
ZACH: I will be starting my ninth-year teaching in Casper, Wyoming, next schoolyear. My eighth year at Natrona County High School.
LINDSAY: Why did you become a drama teacher?
ZACH: It’s funny. I didn’t set out to become a drama teacher.
I wanted to be a performer in high school and in college. At that point, that was the only track that a lot of people hear about is performing. I had some life stuff happen and had a child very early and decided I would do the next thing that I loved in high school and that was journalism because it pays so much better. And so, I worked at the newspaper in Casper for about eight years before I decided to become a teacher. The drama position opened up at my old high school and the theatre teacher across town said, “You need to take this.” I’d been active in our community theatre and so I just kind of fell into it.
LINDSAY: We’re here to talk about a specific production but that leads me to another question which I know all of our listeners are drama teachers and many of them are walking into classrooms exactly the way that you did – not at the beginning of their career but coming from something else.
ZACH: Sure. Yes.
LINDSAY: What was it like your first year just walking into that classroom? It’s such a different experience.
ZACH: Well, you know, my school is really unique. It was built in 1924. It’s this amazing architectural style called Collegiate Gothic. Our auditorium is beautiful. Well, when I walked in, it was 90 years old and it was showing its age. It has wonderful crown molding and carvings around the proscenium arch and it just has this wonderful feel. When I walked in, it was coming back home because I was a member of the Thespian Troupe there. We were Thespian Troupe Number 1.
LINDSAY: No! Are you, really?
ZACH: Yes, we are.
LINDSAY: Oh, you said that, yes, that’s how you know!
ZACH: So, I was a member of that troupe. And then, to come back and become the director of that troupe was really special.
LINDSAY: Well, yeah. I’m an English major and sometimes words just completely fail me – not the environment of that but I guess the weight of that, the ritual of that.
ZACH: Yes, and there was a lot of tradition there.
LINDSAY: There’s a good word.
ZACH: We had a magnificent teacher for whom the auditorium is named – John Welsh – who built this drama program at this school from the late 50’s through the mid-80’s and he was a giant – figuratively and literally – in town.
The program had suffered from a rotating crop of drama teachers. Every four years, you’d have another one come in and there wasn’t a lot of consistency or people who understood or revered the traditions of the school. That has been my biggest focus – building the stature of that program back up – but we also just finished about a two-year 15-million-dollar renovation of our auditorium space so I got to see the facelift of this center of our community and it’s just been fantastic.
LINDSAY: Oh, I can’t imagine. Just talking about traditions and just maintaining that but then also moving it forward into the next century so that it’s a working space.
ZACH: And it’s state of the art. I mean, we have a fantastic LED light system. We have a change of an orchestra lifts. We got a full counterweight fly. We had an old pin rail fly system with hemp rope on a wood grid before this. It scared the life out of me. But, you know, I got a black box theatre for my classroom that has full independent lighting and sound. It’s a dream come true.
LINDSAY: Now, what great play places you have! Just to give your students experiences in.
ZACH: Absolutely. They’re experimenting with state-of-the-art technology and I’m really excited for them.
LINDSAY: Ah, that’s wonderful, Zach! I love hearing that because you can really tell that you’ve got some joy to have these spaces to work with.
We’re here and we are talking about your production of The Laramie Project.
LINDSAY: Now, you have a really unique relationship with this play and, also, the place.
ZACH: Sure. I grew up in Casper, Wyoming. It’s a town of right now just over 65,000 or 70,000 people. But, when I was growing up, it was an oil town. There was a refinery there. A lot of the kids’ parents were involved in the oil industry.
When I was growing up, I went to Crest Hill Elementary School. A year behind me was a kid who was also involved in theatre, was tiny, but was a great personality and a wonderful friend and his name was Matt Shepard. And so, I grew up with Matt through grade school until he left to go to school in Switzerland when the previous oil crash in Wyoming happened to this one. He, like many students, left.
About – gosh – six years later, I see this kid on the campus of the University of Wyoming that I’m attending, going to journalism school, and somebody I never thought I’d see again and I saw him on campus. We talked a couple of times. A couple of weeks later, I picked up the student newspaper and found out that he’d been tied to a fence and beaten.
It’s an odd experience to have lived through that tragedy and then also to come full circle and be able to witness the creation of a dramatic work based on it that really elevated the conversation of hate crime and our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and how they’re treated. That does so in a way that’s so honest to those people there.
When I was working at the newspaper, I got to interview Moises Kaufman before the opening of the Denver Center production. And then, we produced it at our community theatre in Casper. When I started at the school, Matthew went to the high school for a year that I teach at – a year behind me. When I got there, I realized that a lot of my students had never heard the name Matthew Shepard.
LINDSAY: Sorry. I silently gave a huge shock on my face. That’s wild.
ZACH: They maybe hadn’t heard it. If they had, they really hadn’t heard about the situation. You know, in Wyoming, we often don’t like to talk about our skeletons in our closet. And so, I found that a lot of the dialogue in Wyoming – well, Wyoming felt beat up by this event and painted as a really homophobic place where, in some aspects, rightly so in the late 90’s, but in others, a lot of people felt that they were painted unfairly. I look at The Laramie Project as a love letter to Wyoming to show really the multifaceted community that we are.
LINDSAY: It’s human. It’s a very human portrayal.
ZACH: And so, I had started my master’s program at University of Northern Colorado and, part of that, you have to do a production thesis. I was thinking, “What play should I do?” I was looking at all of these plays and thinking, “I could do this, I could do that.”
Then, I thought, “Why don’t you do something that means something to you and means something to your students?” because I have transgender students, I have gay students, I have lesbian students, bisexual.
We have the rainbow in our school in Wyoming and I wanted to do something that would affect them in some way. And so, I picked The Laramie Project.
LINDSAY: So, your thought was something that would affect your community; also, bring some light into the story. When you were thinking about this piece in terms of the theatrical-ness of it and your vision for this piece, what did you tell your students? What in your head was your vision for staging this piece?
ZACH: First of all, there’s an intense theatricality of this piece. I mean, it’s very Brechtian in the fact that you’re having a dialogue with the audience. It’s not a narrative play where you have characters who are interacting with each other, who are playing obstacles and tactics in the normal way, and it’s very much a dialogue to the audience. And so, what we wanted to do was focus on the characters and their words rather than the maybe caricature that they could become.
And so, our stage was a set of platforms and stools. I had about 25 kids in the play that played multiple characters. They would have boxes next to them that would have costume pieces or props that were their character. But the cast was onstage the entire play.
And then, we used projections. One of my friends from the Casper Star-Tribune, Jason Marsden, is the president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and another one of my friends, Susan Burke with The Laramie Project Special is for the foundation. They gave me pictures of locations in Laramie, people involved in the play, and then we used projections to show the different moments of the play.
LINDSAY: That’s pretty powerful and simple. I think that the notion of a box of props is really one of my favorite theatrical techniques. We’re here and we’re creating a world and I’m just going to put this hat on and I’m going to become that character and you’re going to believe me.
I love a beautiful set but I think theatre is our imaginations.
ZACH: Absolutely. You know, what I found was I think high school students need to see that theatre doesn’t have to be realism all the time – that there’s a place for theatricality, for using symbols to suggest a whole. And so, that was an interesting thing to watch them kind of come to terms with but it was really amazing the way they pulled it off.
LINDSAY: Was it their first experience with that kind of theatricality?
ZACH: Yes, a lot of them, yes. We’d done some things in class and talked about it. We’ve done some devised things that are a little more out there but this is their first full length mainstage show that really wasn’t a realistic piece of theatre.
LINDSAY: Well, these days, either they’re looking at movies which are just uber-realism or they’re looking at musicals which are usually that spectacle of it.
ZACH: Over-the-top spectacle of it.
LINDSAY: Over-the-top and, you know, there’s lots of festivals where that’s what they’re putting onstage. In Broadway, that’s what they’re putting onstage. To give them that experience of, well, it’s back to basics and you are sharing the story so you have to be the world.
ZACH: Sure. I think, as far as production elements, anybody could do this show.
I had a theatre teacher tell me, “You need three things to do theatre – you need actors, you need an audience, and you need a space to perform.”
LINDSAY: In that order.
ZACH: Yeah. You know, the guy who just got a 15-million-dollar renovation on his theatre, I try to make that clear to my kids that you don’t need fancy toys and amazing lighting and projection systems to do profound moving theatre.
LINDSAY: What were some of the rehearsal techniques or rehearsal activities you used to get that across for your students and character development and that kind of stuff?
ZACH: I approached this one a little differently than I do most plays. We spent a lot of time at the beginning looking at the people because, you know, the thing that I told them, as a journalist, what I always valued is getting what people say correctly. Father Roger in the play says, “You have a duty to the people in this play to say it correctly and get it right.”
That was what I wanted to get to them because I think, for us as artists, it’s very easy for us to simplify this with the characters – the Jonas Slonaker character was the middle-aged gay rancher who feels threatened or Romaine Patterson who’s such a dynamic character. But, when you look at the other characters that are giving the more traditional or maybe even homophobic point of view, it’s easy to make them rednecks.
LINDSAY: Yes, paint for the wide brush.
ZACH: Yes, very stereotypical. What I wanted to do was I wanted to make sure that this play is a conversation and the character that gets up and says, “It just ain’t right!” you know, they have as much dignity to the words that they spoke and three-dimensionality of that character as the one that you maybe identify with more.
LINDSAY: I think that’s a really important thought – that it’s a conversation – because that means you have to think about the audience. It’s not just all of this stuff is coming out. We’re not just presenting. We are sharing and that means I expect something is going to come back and it’s a very different performing skill from presenting where there’s kind of a wall to actually engaging and sharing.
ZACH: And so, we used journal work with this. At the beginning of the rehearsal process, I handed them out a journal. Of course, it was part of my thesis. And so, their qualitative answers were my data.
But, for them, it was very valuable – you know, at the end of each rehearsal, we would have a discussion question or a writing prompt about what we did that day or what we explored, what are the things that you’re struggling with – both in acting technique or just emotionally.
I had a lot of students who had just come out to their parents, who were in the middle of the confusion of transitioning. I had one student whose moms are a lesbian couple. I had some that were high socioeconomic status and one girl that her one meal was school lunches.
And so, we did a lot of time just talking about what are the things that make us different and what are the things that make us the same and how can we make sure that we don’t objectify the other as less than. And so, we had a counsellor on call. Her daughter was in the show and she would come to rehearsals and help us in conversations which I think is really important.
LINDSAY: It’s such an intense topic all on its own. But, if you have students who are relating and also confused in their own world, you know, to make sure that they’re safe, too.
ZACH: Yeah. I mean, I had done this show before as an actor and I remember how it affected me as an actor. It emotionally and physically had an effect on me and I wanted to make sure that I protected the kids from that as much as possible.
And then, you have the fact of the subject matter and you’re doing it close to home. You’re doing it pretty much down the street, right? With a lot of people that have a lot of strong opinions about that event.
And so, we had to talk about the fact that, over the course of my experience with Matthew’s murderer, I’ve been in four or five different churches or places of work that have been protested by the Westboro Baptist Church. Thankfully, they didn’t come. They’d moved on to military funerals by that time.
But we had to talk with the administration about this as a possibility and the fact that there is a lot of language in the play. There’s a lot of F-words. I know you have a pretty PG-rated podcast but you have quotes from Aaron McKinney that the reason why he killed Matt is because he grabbed his privates but they say the word. That was the only objection that we had to contend – an email from a teacher in the school saying that they were resistant to the language in the play.
LINDSAY: That’s a pretty nice way of putting it, though. That’s not saying, “I’m offended and you’re horrible and you should go somewhere.” They’re acknowledging that it’s them.
ZACH: I had a wonderful head principal. He backed me up the entire way. He said, “I just want you to know I got this email.” But what was nice about doing it as part of the thesis program is I wanted to ensure that no kid just came in and a parent didn’t know what they were doing.
And so, as part of the thesis process, it was an IRB thesis which is the board that looks to make sure that your experiments using human subjects is ethical. And so, the parents had to sign a permission slip for the kids to even audition. Once the kids got in, they signed a parent consent form to be a part of the thesis. As far as the language went, we followed us district rules which are, if you’re going to show a rated-R movie and if the arbitrary rating-ness of movies, it’s PG-13, you can have one F-word.
ZACH: If you do one more, it’s R. The Laramie Project has more than that. And so, I made sure parents knew. It was after-school hours. I added administration, backed me up on it, and that was really wonderful and important.
LINDSAY: Well, we’ve had lots of discussions about how you put on plays in this time where there seems to be a lot more hands raising, saying, “No, you can’t do this. No, you can’t do this.”
ZACH: The outrage machine is in full force. Look at Julius Caesar in New York recently. But, you know, I kind of teach my kids – and maybe I’m a bit of a renegade – but theatre should offend you sometimes. If you’re offended by the fact that you have high school students cursing onstage, you should be more offended by the fact that these guys took this kid, tied him to a fence, and beat him with an 8-inch revolver and left him at 7,000 feet on an October night in Wyoming for dead. That’s offensive to me.
LINDSAY: Yes, 100 percent. Well, I’m always amazed at what offends people. The list goes on. But this is how you deal with it. It’s like everyone knows upfront. I think this is what happens in a lot of these cases. Parents are not in the know and administration is not in the know so don’t do that.
ZACH: Yeah. I think there is that adage that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission, but our University of Wyoming just had an incident this last week where they were doing a production of The Fantastics and they presented it to a group of Native American students. From what I’ve read, they did a really poor representation of the actor that dresses up as the Indian and they did a pretty offensive job in these people’s minds. They got up and they walked out.
I think we, as theatre artists, yeah, we can be provocative but we also need to let our audience trust us that we’re going to take them to a place that maybe they don’t want to go but we’re going to do it in a safe way – you know, dramaturgical analysis when you’re doing these things and making sure that you put that in the program I think is important. I don’t think anymore we can just present a play and let it speak for itself, especially dealing with issues like homosexuality or suicide or bullying or mental illness or whatever it is. If you are going to do a play that you want to add to the dialogue, you’ve got to have a dialogue.
LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s not a presentation; it’s conversation. Also, your job is on the line. This is not just you and I’ve got a barn and we’re going to put something on. I think it’s foolhardy not to make that part of the conversation. I like the way you put that. It’s like, if you want to put that play out there, you need to make sure you’re having conversations about it.
ZACH: Yeah, you have to have the dialogue. One thing that we did is, after every performance, we had a Q&A with the audience – anybody who wanted to stay. What I hate is where they start the Q&A before the audience leaves. We give the audience a few minutes. Anybody who didn’t want to stay, they could go, and we had great dialogues. The kids drove the conversation with the audience. Those were magical moments.
LINDSAY: Well, now, you’ve had a theatrical experience and a thing that is actually extending beyond the stage and it’s decompressing, it’s debriefing, and it’s more than a presentation. That’s your conversation.
As far as the rehearsal process goes, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, we were lucky – speaking of great administrators – our school district paid to fly Kelly Simpkin who was in the original production and a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company to come out. She did a couple of days of workshops with the kids of exploring moment work and going through the creation. The kids got to ask questions about what it was like creating this and presenting it and how did you feel coming up to these people and asking them these questions. That was really wonderful.
LINDSAY: That’s really great.
As we wrap this up here, what piece of advice would you give a teacher who’s looking at this play who wants to do this play who is tentative about doing The Laramie Project?
ZACH: I would say a couple of things. One, as Father Roger said, these are real people. I know and am friends with about a quarter of the characters that I stay in touch with. They’re real people so understand that. They’re also real people whose lives have moved on a little since this.
They get a lot of emails from high school students asking them, “What’s your favorite color?” They’re trying to do character analysis on real people and I think that’s important but, at the same time, I look at this play as a modern day “Our Town.” It is about Laramie, but the point of the play is that this can happen and does happen anywhere – everywhere. Really, if you look at the words that are in the script, trust the script, follow the script.
One final piece of advice I would have is, even though it’s a strong symbolic element, I would stay away from doing a real buck wooden fence onstage. That’s a personal thing for me because I think it is a powerful symbol. I think you can do that in really powerful ways. Maybe that’s my own personal feeling of the event. It’s still a hard thing for me almost twenty years on to see. But trust your kids. Talk to your administration. Create a dialogue. You know, represent the people of Wyoming well because we’re just like any other place. We have a lot of loving and amazing people and we have some other people that are backwards in their thinking and just need to be woken up.
LINDSAY: It’s like every town. I think you’ve just described every place in every town in every country.
LINDSAY: Thank you so much, Zach!
I really appreciate that you reached out to have this conversation and I know Laramie is right up there. It’s done every year, right? It’s done every day and I think it’s important. I’m really proud and really happy that we’re going to have this out there.
ZACH: Sure. Just one last thing, I know the foundation has steered away from their Laramie Project specialist. If there are any teachers out there that want name pronunciations, if you want any color or you just want any background on the play, you’re more than welcome to put my email address up on the website and contact me because I like sharing the story of my friend Matt.
LINDSAY: Awesome! Thank you so much!
Thank you, Zach!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Any links to today’s episode can be found in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode194.
Hey, are you producing one of our plays? We want to hear about it! We want to hear from you! And, most importantly, we want to see a picture, we want to see some rehearsal footage, we want to hear what’s going on. We’re doing production features that showcase you.
What are you doing? What are your students doing? What new takes have you got on one of our scripts? What successes have happened? And even what struggles have happened?
It’s all about showcasing what’s going on and we want to hear about your experience and we want to share your experience. All you’ve got to do is send us the info at email@example.com.
If you’re doing one of our plays, one of Theatrefolk plays, we want to hear about it.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast. There are a ton – a ton of options! We’re on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more.
Again, that’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.
I really enjoyed your talk with Zach Schneider about his experience directing The Laramie Project in Casper, Wyoming. I do, however, want to amend one thing I heard at the very end:
The Matthew Shepard Foundation still very much supports school productions of the LP plays. Our Web site, MatthewShepard.org, offers the easiest way to contact us. Click “Our Work” in the top navigation bar to see the “Laramie Project Support” link; the page includes a contact form. I will receive the request and help in every way I can. (I also try to proactively contact every upcoming production I find on the Dramatists.com—usually about two months ahead of the first performance dates.)
We can offer a Dropbox share with nearly 3 gigabytes of digitized resources for drama teachers and their students to use in their dramaturgy, as well as for stage projections and promotional materials. These include more than 170 photographs (most high resolution) of Laramie and environs, the original Angel Action, and more; a video compilation of local Wyoming TV news broadcasts contemporaneous with the events of the play; a similar collection of scanned clippings from area newspapers; and dozens of scanned cards and letters selected from the tens of thousands received by the Shepard family. The Dropbox folder also includes study guides and advice on preparing for talkbacks, panel discussions or Q&As.
In my 33-year career as a high school English teacher, I taught nearly everything in the curriculum except drama, and I have only a few years’ youthful experience in community theater. So I admittedly do not have our former Laramie Project Specialist Susan Burk’s production chops. When I encounter production questions I can’t answer, I turn to friends who teach drama in nearby schools, or act, direct or produce in local theaters. And I identify teacher-directed online resources, such as this very podcast.
Also unlike Susan, I’m not from Wyoming—I’ve lived in the Denver area since 1972. But as Zach mentioned, our Executive Director, Jason Marsden, who grew up in Wyoming, also knew Matt, still knows many of the people depicted in the play, and has deep understanding of Wyoming history and politics. Jason is happy to Skype with students as they prepare for their roles in the play—or even participate via Skype in a post-show talkback. Of course, Matt’s brother Logan sits across the office from me; Judy and Dennis are a text-message away, as are many other “primary sources”—I can get answers to some pretty arcane questions!
Meanwhile, as we get more requests from classroom teachers, I am gathering and creating instructional materials to support use of the play as a text in literature classes. Our “Legacy Project” will ultimately include teaching and discussion supports for Judy’s memoir, The Meaning of Matthew; Lesléa Newman’s “novel in poetry,” October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; Craig Hella Johnson’s oratorio, Considering Matthew Shepard; and the documentary by Matt’s classmate Michele Josue, Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine.
Legacy Project Coordinator
Matthew Shepard Foundation