After a semester full of rehearsals, theater students are preparing for their first performance since the department’s return to Mills College with a production of “The Laramie Project.” The production, based on the real life 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, a gay man, is part of Performance, a theater course at Mills.
The drama department became defunct in the early 2000s but made a return in the Fall of 2014 with a partnership with the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco.
Victor Talmadge, professor of theater and the director of Mills’ production of “The Laramie Project,” said that the play is an important piece with a message about prejudice, especially gender prejudice. According to Talmadge, he chose the play because it allows for gender and age fluid casting. Talmadge also said that it serves as an introduction for students to the fall documentary playwriting course.
“The format of the piece is a documentary,” Talmadge said. “All of the dialogue is real.”
Junior theater major Sophia DiPaola, who plays four roles in the production, said for those who are interested in theater, this production is something to see because it’s full of moment work, a method employed by the Tectonic Theater Project, who originally collaborated in writing “The Laramie Project.”
“It’s a collection of interviews that the company members did with the people of Laramie to get their responses and reactions to what happened,” Elizabeth Bergstrom, a student actor, said. “So in the original production, there are the real-life company members who are actually characters in the play. Each of those company members portrays a number of Laramie residents that were interviewed. For example, I play company member Greg Pierotti, and I will transform into various Laramie residents throughout the play.”
Rivianna Hyatt, a theater major who is acting in the play and who is the head of marketing for the production, noted that the idea of community spaces is important within “The Laramie Project.”
“The Laramie Project deals with queerness and its implications,” Hyatt said. “While it’s about a story that happened in 1998, these kinds of things are still happening all the time. As a queer person, I can relate to a lot of the sentiments expressed in The Laramie Project.”
DiPaola agreed the play is relevant to the Mills community.
“A lot of hatred has been thrown around. Whether it’s racial or queer rights, we’re trying to figure out how to deal with it,” DiPaola said. “I think that “The Laramie Project” … really shows how to put love into a situation filled with so much hatred and when it comes to social justice, it’s something we need to remember to do.”
Hyatt said she hopes that the theater department will be able to show what they’re all about with “The Laramie Project.”
“It’s been pretty exciting because it’s the theater program’s first production since we’ve been established again this year,” Hyatt said. “So we’ve drawn a lot of energy from that and how exciting that is.”
Bergstrom, a sophomore double major in mathematics and theater, said that the play is important to kickstart the theater department.
“The best part has definitely been working together as an ensemble cast,” Bergstrom said in an email. “We all depend on each other as actors and actresses, and it really translates to the stage to bring out the truth of relationships in the play.”
Bergstrom said that each actor plays between three and five characters in the show because of the way The Laramie Project was written by the Tectonic Theater Project.
“This play has over 40 characters in it and only 11 people in the cast,” DiPaola said. “It’s such a challenge, but really cool to see how we transform on stage.”
The play is meaningful and political, DiPaola said. And for Hyatt, she said that a big part of the play is that it shows Wyoming as something other than a “hellhole of the Earth,” quoting one of her character’s lines.
“Learning all the dramaturgical information about it makes me want to go to [Wyoming], and getting to know what that community is like and what that space is like has been really interesting to me,” Hyatt said. “My takeaway from this show is that we’re all a part of a community. Whether we like it or not, we’re all products of a community.”