By Ed Symkus
The upcoming Needham High School Theater Arts production of "The Laramie Project" has quite a bit of history behind it.
Fifteen years ago, just outside of Laramie, Wyoming, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead by two local 21-year-old men. He died in a hospital five days later, and by that time press from around the country had flocked to Wyoming to investigate this newest hate crime. But along with reporters were members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project. They conducted more than 200 interviews with locals resulting, two years later, in the Denver premiere of the documentary-styled play "The Laramie Project," featuring all of the actors playing multiple characters.
The play was adapted into an HBO movie and, according to the Tectonic Theatre Website, "is one of the most performed plays in America today." It comes to Needham High School as a choice of Jonah LeDoux, who is co-directing it with Jean Robinson. Both are theater teachers at Needham High School.
"I�ve been wanting to direct this for a long time, said LeDoux, by phone from his home in Needham, and who last year directed a Needham High production of "Romeo and Juliet." "There have been some random incidents around school, and some attitudes that I�ve heard about, so I thought, �Let�s talk about it. Let�s find a play where we can talk about people�s attitudes toward people who are different. I think plays like this are a good way to have an open, honest discussion. �The Laramie Project� doesn�t whitewash anything; it�s very much about people speaking openly.
"I think it deals with the NIMBY problem" � an acronym for not in my backyard � he added. "It�s like, �This doesn�t happen where I am,� but of course, that�s never really true, is it? I think a play like this is almost more important to perform in a place that people consider a little more liberal."
LeDoux was quite pleased that there was no controversy surrounding the choice of presenting "The Laramie Project" in Needham.
"To everyone�s credit, it was pretty much considered a fantastic idea, from the principal, Dr. Pizzi, to my boss [Director of Fine & Performing Arts] David Neves. They were saying that the only issue was how do we make it a bigger deal. One way is we�re having an in-school assembly on the day we open, where we�ll perform about 20 minutes of the play for several classes, then have some discussions about the play and what it�s talking about."
For those not familiar with the 90-minute drama or its offbeat structure, it was written by Tectonic�s founder Moises Kaufman, and consists of edited interviews from the Laramie visit by Kaufman and his actors.
Page 2 of 2 - "It�s presented almost like a town hall," said LeDoux. "A bunch of people come on and say, �We�re actors, and we went out to Wyoming and we spoke to a lot of people, and this is a portion of what people said to us.� Then the actor playing that actor will say, �And now I�m playing THIS person.� And then another actor will say, �This person is THIS person now.�
"There are about 40 different characters in it," he added, "played by 11 actors � five seniors and six freshmen. That worked out kind of weird this year, as it�s usually more of a mix, with a few people from all different years."
Working closely with LeDoux is Jean Robinson.
"I�ve taken the lead as director," said LeDoux, "but Jean has been instrumental coming in and being a critical second eye. She�s a wonderful director in her own right, and I can say that the way we blocked the last scene was definitely more of her idea than mine."
LeDoux went on to explain that the theater program at the high school is evolving, and its scope is expanding.
"Last year the drama we did was �The Crucible� and the musical was �Urinetown�," he said.
So will he follow up "The Laramie Project" with a light, breezy comedy?
"Well, this play is not without humor, but it�s definitely talking about a serious subject," he said. "I don�t know what I�ll do next. I guess it�ll be whatever strikes my fancy."