Denise Neil

Heights part of premiere of 'Laramie' follow-up

Student actors at Heights High School will be part of a high-tech, international theater project on Monday night when they debut the play "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later."

It's a pretty impressive undertaking, dealing with pretty heavy subject matter. But theater teacher Stuart Graham says his cast students and alumni are up to the task.

The play, which focuses on the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., will debut simultaneously in about 150 theaters across the United States and in several other countries, including some in England, Australia and Hong Kong (who because of time zone issues will perform it only semi-simultaneously.)

Most of the theaters presenting the play are professional, and Heights is one of just a few high school groups accepted to participate in the premiere. (Heights is also one of only three theaters in Kansas given permission to participate. McPherson College and the Kansas City Repertory Theater are the other two.)

All participating theaters will present via Webcast a preshow discussion hosted by actress Glenn Close and including Shepard's mother, Judy, as well as a post-show question-and-answer session with the writers of the play.

Shepard was the University of Wyoming student who was murdered near Laramie in 1998. His death earned international attention because of witness accounts that he was targeted for being gay. The trial spurred state and federal hate crime legislation.

After Shepard's death, a group of theater professionals called Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie and interviewed people — including those directly affected by the crime as well as those with no involvement at all — about the incident.

Those interviews were turned into a play, which was turned into a 2002 movie, called "The Laramie Project."

"It was a pretty famous piece of theater," Graham said. "It was real different because it was like a documentary, using real words and real names."

That same group of theater professionals returned to Laramie in 2008 to reinterview the subjects and see how attitudes had changed after a decade.

Those interviews are woven into the new play, which is being debuted on the 11th anniversary of Shepard's death.

Graham said his students performed the original play in 2002, and when he read about the new project in a theater magazine, he wrote the directors to ask if he and his students could be a part of it.

In addition to current students, Graham cast several members of the original play, who have since graduated and moved on. His students are benefiting from acting alongside the alumni, including Eric Tedder, a Heights graduate who has made a name for himself performing in Lawrence.

The students also benefiting from being exposed to a more modern, high-tech sort of theater production, Graham said, as well as from the message of the play.

"The message I think is that we need to remember the truth of the story because one of the things that is happening in the play and in Laramie is that there are members of the community who are editing what really happened for their own comfort level."

If you go

'The Laramie project: TEN Years Later"

What: A play about the death of Matthew Shepard being simultaneously debuted by theater groups across the world, including student actors at Heights High School

Where: Heights High School Auditorium, 5301 N. Hillside

When: 7 p.m. Monday

How much: Admission is free, though donations will be accepted and given to a charity

For more information, call 316-973-1400 or visit http://heights.usd259.org

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