Not quite fourteen years ago, a slight, almost petite young gay man named Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten and tied to a fence on a frigid autumn prairie outside Laramie city limits in the state of Wyoming.
“I just thought it was a scarecrow,” said Aaron Kriefels, the real life bicyclist who found Shepard, unconscious, many hours later.
Now, almost fourteen years after his horrific discovery, Kriefels’ words inspired one young man to try out for a part in The Laramie Project at the Maltz Jupiter Theater.
Antonio Chicco, a junior at Dreyfoos School of the Arts, is glad he did.
“A friend of mine performed Kriefels’ monologue in class and when he found out Maltz was auditioning he said we should try out,” said Chicco. “He never did [try out] but I did and here I am and I’ve learned a lot.”
The Laramie Project is the second annual Youth Artists’ Chair production and will be presented for one night only on Saturday, Sep. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for children. The students will hold a question and answer session with the audience after the show.
Few, if any, of the sixteen youth ranging in age from 13 to 18 had heard of Matthew Shepard or of The Laramie Project. Understandably so: The oldest was four and the youngest had not been born when 21-year old Matthew Shepard succumbed to his injuries in October 1998.
The Laramie Project is a unique theatrical production based on interviews with townspeople in the wake of the global scrutiny that beset the city because of Shepard’s brutal murder.
Moises Kauffman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project spent a year traveling to Laramie from New York City, interviewing Laramie residents to understand their reactions to the young man’s death and subsequent media attention.
“We’re focusing on bullying with this production,” said Julie Rowe, Director of Education at the theater. “The students are familiar with bullying in school but this play takes it to a different level for them.”
Members of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Palm Beach Gardens were invited to share what it means to be gay in the 21st century and what life was like for gay people before the civil rights movement began.
“We were thrilled to be invited to share our stories with these youth,” said Rev. Dr. Lea Brown, Pastor. “They are at an age where they can understand the different kinds of bullying and how attitudes toward a group of people can take on a life of their own.”
“That was an eye-opener,” said actor Frances Weissler, a home-schooled sophomore. “I never really knew what it’s like to live like that. When I heard their stories I realized you really can’t know how other people feel.”
“We tackle some difficult issues in this project,” said Rowe, describing the Youth Artists’ Chair Program under which The Laramie Project is being produced. “It’s a free summer program in which theater staff provide one-on-one mentoring and guidance in all aspects of producing a play from casting to scenery to lighting to …everything.”
“Last year we did The Good Times Are Killing Me which is a tough play on interracial friendship by Lynda Berry,” Rowe continued. “At this age the kids are starting to be aware of themselves in the community and how they can make a difference.”
“I love being the director,” said Corinne Thomas, a senior at Suncoast High. “You get to create a transitory vision that strives to be as authentic to the time, place and story as possible. I love to act but there’s something more in directing.”
Stage Manager, Lauren O’Keefe, a sophomore at Jupiter High added, “It’s good for students to be taking a stand against hate and against bullying. Being stage manager lets me relate to the topic as a whole and I can watch it grow.”
Jason Parsley, Editor in Chief of South Florida Gay news, a media partner in the project said this about bullying, “It will take more than just laws to end this epidemic. The focus must also be on changing people’s hearts and minds and it is through productions like this, and the support of organizations like the Maltz Jupiter Theatre that we will accomplish that goal.
Visit www.jupitertheatre.org or call 561-575-2223 for more information or to purchase tickets.