By Bera Dunau Staff Writer
---- — A Cooperstown production of the “The Laramie Project,” a play inspired by a brutal hate crime and its aftermath over a decade ago, opens today.
“I think it’s important that people know the story,” said Rebecca Burk-Sciallo, co-director of the Cooperstown production of “The Laramie Project.” “There are hate crimes happening every day in the world.”
In 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay, 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was offered a ride home by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Instead, they drove Shepard to a remote location where he was robbed, tortured and pistol whipped, after which he was left tied to a fence. Shepard was found eighteen hours later in a coma and died of his injuries after five days.
At McKinney’s trial, it was revealed that hatred of Shepard’s sexual orientation was a motivator in the crime. McKinney and Henderson were both sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and Shepard’s case became a rallying cry for supporters of hate-crimes legislation.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2009 and expands the federal definition of a hate crime to include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability, is partly named after him.
In the aftermath of Shepard’s murder, playwright Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to interview members of the community. These interviews, which number over 200, along with the company members’ journal entries and excerpts from McKinney’s trial form the basis of “The Laramie Project.” Premiering in 2000, it has been performed frequently and world-wide.
“It really is a collection of monologues and moments from the actual people who lived in Laramie at the time,” said Burk-Sciallo.
Burk-Sciallo said that Mary Davis Fralick of the Orpheus Theatre in Oneonta approached her in the summer of last year about co-directing with her.
“I’ve always wanted to direct it,” said Burk-Sciallo.
The two then approached the Cooperstown Art Association about providing a space for the play, and the association agreed to allow the use of Cooperstown Art Association Gallery C, located above the library, for the performance.
Burk Sciallo has directed a Cooperstown Production of “The Vagina Monologues” for the last seven years, the last two performances of which have been in Gallery C.
“Places have always been really wonderful in opening their doors to us and the Cooperstown Art Association is one of those places,” said Burk-Sciallo.
Auditions for “The Laramie Project” were in November and Burk-Sciallo said there was a significant turn out, resulting in 22 people being cast.
“We had a lot of people try out and we wanted to give everybody a part within the show,” said Burk-Sciallo.
There was no shortage of parts, as the play has over 60 different characters.
“Each person has a minimum of two characters,” said Burk-Sciallo.
Burk-Sciallo teaches 11th- and 12th-grade English at Cooperstown Central School, and she says that when she does a show, she informs her students about it. Many of the cast members of the production are young people.
“I think that this play is important to a lot of people,” said Burk-Sciallo, on why the auditions received such a strong response.
The play consists primarily of monologues, with minimal blocking and stage directions.
“Our stage is very minimalistic,” said Burk-Sciallo, who said that it is being borrowed from The Smithy Center for the Arts.
Because of the nature of the space, most of the cast will be on stage throughout the production.
“We try to keep the exits and entrances to a minimum,” said Burk-Sciallo.
Still, she says that having to adapt to a space is a challenge that she’s used to.
“It’s the beauty of community theater,” said Burk-Sciallo.
Costumes are similarly simple. All cast members will be dressed in base black clothing. When playing a specific character they will use props or items of clothing, such as a hoody or a lighter, in order to differentiate roles.
The production will be held on Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. in Gallery C. Burk-Sciallo says that the production may add dates in Cherry Valley.
“It’s been a very wonderful project so far,” said Burk-Sciallo.
Tickets will only be available at the door, and are $10. Because of its themes, it is suggested for viewers 13 and older.
All money made by the production will be donated to the Students Against Destructive Decisions chapters in Cooperstown and Cherry Valley. Burk-Sciallo is the adviser for the Cooperstown SADD chapter, which tackles such issues as drinking and driving, partner violence and supporting diversity.
As for the significance of “The Laramie Project” today, Burk-Sciallo says that it is still very relevant.
“I think that it still is important today because we just aren’t there yet,” said Burk-Sciallo, noting that hate crimes are still committed worldwide
“This is our small part to bring about awareness in the world.”