In theatre, when you hear someone refer to what they’re currently working on as a ‘labor of love’ it usually means that their involvement is a reflection of something more than simply working. It doesn’t necessarily mean they want to hammer home a particular message, either. It means that in addition to producing a work of art, those involved want to bring home an awareness of something that is important to them, an issue that not only entertains but might also succeed in making you think and perhaps motivate further conversation and debate. If Spotlight Youth Theatre’s intention to produce The Laramie Project as part of its current season was inspired by any of those intentions, then on sheer courage alone it has succeeded.
You probably remember the real event. In 1998, a University of Wyoming student, who happened to be gay, was brutally murdered by two boys, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and left tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. The boys were arrested and convicted. The murder was considered a hate crime, but what followed was the realization that Wyoming, as well as many other states, had a distinct lack of hate crime laws on their books.
Not long later, a theater company from New York City known as the Tectonic Theater Project grabbed its notebooks and recording equipment and went down to Laramie where hundreds of interviews with the town residents were conducted. The transcripts of those recordings were the foundation of what became known as The Laramie Project.
Since it was first performed in 2000, the play has traveled the globe. In Britain, the script has even become a regular part of the nation’s high school curriculum to be studied and discussed as a work of literature. And in what some may call a brave attempt to bring the project home, the play was even performed by the Tectonic Theater Project in Laramie itself where it all began. And now we have a production in Phoenix, and as director Kenny Grossman announced in a short speech before the opening weekend performance began, the company considers The Laramie Project to be the most important show ever performed at Spotlight.
The original production had just eight players performing all sixty characters, but Spotlight has enlarged the ensemble by having twenty-two of its members participate. It’s good decision. Not only does a larger cast help create the feeling of a town populated by many – the courtroom arraignment scenes plus the overcrowded media scenes are particularly effective – it still enables each actor to play several different characters without the feeling that we’re constantly seeing the same faces. With a simple change of hats, maybe a jacket here and there and the occasional different accent, these young performers successfully create the illusion that we’re witnessing residents on their home turf trying to make sense of what happened.
With an ensemble such as this it would be wrong to single out individual performers above others. This is a play where the cast either works together or the whole thing falls apart. Spotlight works together. It’s a long production – the show runs for almost three hours with two intermissions – and is played out not in scenes but in Moments with a title for each moment displayed on two TV monitors, like Live and Let Live, The Fence and Jury Selection.
Considering the content, the production’s problems are minor, but should still be addressed. When actors are talking directly to the audience, which they do for a good chunk of the play, they should look directly at the audience and not at a spot on the back wall above everyone’s heads. It creates a disconnect as if they’re really talking to someone else. Plus, when the townsfolk are making a statement into the mics of a visiting reporter, the reporter should refrain from continually nodding and emotionally reacting to what is being said. Reporters don’t react, they listen. Nodding and looking concerned distracts. Our point of focus should always be on the person being interviewed, not the interviewer. Plus, is it necessary to have some actors mic’d? They’re not competing with a recorded soundtrack, as in a musical. The Spotlight auditorium is small. In such an intimate setting, actors simply projecting might work much more effectively.
Despite these hiccups, The Laramie Project deserves to be seen. There’s a gamble to producing such a play when some audiences would feel more comfortable enjoying teenagers in a famous musical or a family comedy, as evidenced by several empty seats at performances over the weekend, but if you’re still debating on whether you should go or not, go and give these young actors your support and fill those seats. And at the end, when you stand and applaud, do so not only out of appreciation for a job well done but as an acknowledgement that what you’ve just witnessed at Spotlight Youth Theatre was recognized as a true labor of love.
For times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Spotlight Youth Theatre website.