MC Q&A with… the cast of the Laramie Project.
This spring the Moravian College Theatre Company performed The Laramie Project, a mosaic of 63 characters and voices trying to make sense of a hate crime committed in their community. Drawn from interviews with the citizens of Laramie, Wyoming, following the murder of college student Matthew Sheppard,the play is a powerful example of how theater can educate as well as entertain. Moravian’s sparse set included four flatscreen computer monitors that displayed character names as well real-time video supporting the story, and presented a memorial slideshow of hate crime victims during the candlelight vigil that closed each show.
Shortly after the last performance, Moravian College Magazine met with some of the cast and crew. Present were cast members Katie Bernstein ’08, Jessica Croll ’09, Chris Hoagland ’11, Barbara Liebhaber (former Moravian professor of music), Gerard Longo ’09, Phil Minnich ’10, and Geoffrey Roche ’07, as well as director Bill Bauman, assistant director Aaron Bach ’10, and Rachel Fast ’08.
NOW THAT THE SHOW’S ALL OVER, DO YOU MISS IT?
Chris Hoagland ’11: Of course we miss it…
Gerard Longo ’09: I think we all kind of miss the togetherness of being part of something so important. Especially the first weeks after the show, you go through withdrawals, no matter what show you do. But I think this was a special kind of show.
Barbara Liebhaber: Bill [Bauman] created this sense of team. In this show you really had to be a team, and Bill did that. And we were such a tight team.
Chris: It was a really great bonding experience for all of us. I didn’t know Geoff all that well, or Phil, or half the cast all before the show. But you get to know who they are, their likes and dislikes. How they react.
Barbara Liebhaber: It was a very intimate show. It made us really close.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE TO PORTRAY MULTIPLE CHARACTERS?
Geoff Roche ’07: It’s challenging . . . for me, I was fortunate enough to have characters who, most of the time, I agreed with almost everything they said. My characters were funny, my characters liked talking about themselves, they just loved to talk. And that was something I like to do. So it was kind of easy for me to play that. I think the challenge is making sure that you’re switching and playing that character. During rehearsals, Bill often talked about that. Make sure you’re in character. Everything you do. And I think one of the most important things in this play was making sure that we were reacting in character. If you noticed, we were reacting to other cast members. And I think Bill did a good job of making sure that we knew to always do that.
HOW DO YOU MAKE THAT MENTAL SWITCH FROM ONE CHARACTER TO THE OTHER?
Barbara: Well, you put on a different jacket. You put on the jacket and the other hat and you become the other person. Bill had me leaving out of that door, putting a jacket on, coming out the other door as somebody else. And I really was somebody else when I came out the other door. And it was because of the training . . . you hear it from all of us, we’re attributing the learning process to Bill. He really trained us, and the education that we got here is spectacular. As a professor, I’m thinking the kids really should have gotten credit for this in some way because they really got an education.
WAS IT INTIMIDATING AT THE BEGINNING, THINKING “HOW AM I GOING TO BE SEVEN DIFFERENT PEOPLE, FIVE DIFFERENT PEOPLE?”
Phil Minnich ’10: For me it was tough. I played five different characters. I went from being an extreme minister who believed he was always right, to characters with the opposite views who also think “I’m totally right and everyone else is wrong.” And I couldn’t portray them as caricatures. I had to portray them as real people. These are real people.
WITH SO MANY ACTORS MOVING ACROSS THE STAGE . . . DID YOU EVER CRASH INTO EACH OTHER IN REHEARSAL?
Barbara: We crashed backstage, but not here on stage.
Gerard: Everything on stage pretty much flowed remarkably well. In terms of blocking it was intricate, but we were able to have enough room to really just distinguish ourselves from everybody else.
Geoff: I think it would be important to note, though, that although that’s true, we were never really a full cast until the last, not even the last dress rehearsal.
Bill Bauman: There was one Saturday rehearsal, and then the second dress rehearsal, where we had everyone.
Chris: Bill did a really great job with the blocking, making sure that everything was right. So if one person would be sitting over there, and the other person would be on the other side, and they had to change places, there were no problems at all. That’s all the work put in behind the scenes by Bill and Aaron [Bach].
Geoff: I also think that for me, the computer monitors [which displayed the characters’ names as they spoke] were really helpful. I know it sounds ironic, but they were powerful to the play. But the sense of having those monitors up there was helpful. Because, regardless, I’ll be the first to admit, sometimes I’m not them most experienced in theater. So the opportunity to have something to remind me that I need to be possibly reacting, or be ready to speak, was helpful to me.
THERE WERE TALK BACK SESSIONS WITH THE AUDIENCE AFTER EACH PERFORMANCE. WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE, AND WHAT QUESTIONS WERE YOU WERE GETTING?
Barbara: I think the question that struck me, one night somebody asked if we knew whether the people in Laramie had all moved out because of the hate crime. And we were responding with, why would they all move out of Laramie? We’d all have to move out of everywhere in the world, because there are hate crimes everywhere. Then we talked about, how is Bethlehem different from Laramie? Is any place different from any place? So that was a lot of the theme.
Chris: They asked how the play changed us and our views about the incidents.
HAVE ANY OF YOU FOUND YOUR PERCEPTIONS CHANGING, OR DID THE EXPERIENCE RAISE ANY QUESTIONS OR ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS FOR YOU?
Gerard: I started off the talk back pretty much every night touching on that. As Rob DeBree I had a line: “Once we started working into the case, that’s when everything hit home.” Once I started working on the show, that’s when it really hit home for me because I got to see really the human side of all this, and realize that this can happen anywhere because of anything. And that was a really important lesson for me to take away from this.
RACHEL, COULD YOU TALK ABOUT RESEARCHING THE SLIDE SHOW THAT WAS DISPLAYED DURING THE CANDLELIGHT VIGILS?
I searched on the internet and found the pictures of the victims. Aaron asked me to put the person’s name and age, where the hate crime took place, and the date of the crime. I wanted to find a variety because there are hate crimes aimed at all sorts of people. It was very upsetting to research it, to read their stories. About a three year old boy, a 68-year-old man, all these different stores. Just as brutal, if not more, than Matthew’s story.
CAN YOU SEE THE AUDIENCE’S FACES WHEN YOU’RE ON STAGE?
Jessica Croll ’09: Yes, especially for a show like this, where the very purpose of the show is for you to address the audience directly. Almost make them feel as if they’re conducting the interviews with the Tectonic Theatre Project [the theater company that researched and created the play]. I’ve done shows where you have to pretend there’s that fourth wall. Even though the audience is close enough touch, you’re not supposed to acknowledge they’re there. So you have to mentally block them, mentally block their reactions. But in this show, you’re supposed to turn and speak to the audience. They’re right there. The show is about speaking to the audience.
MORAVIAN’S ARENA THEATER IS AN INTIMATE SPACE. DOES THE AUDIENCE BEING SO CLOSE MAKE IT HARD TO PERFORM?
Katie Bernstein ’09: I don’t think its necessarily harder to act with them being so close. During the candlelight vigil at the end, when we’re singing “Amazing Grace” and looking directly at the audience . . . then you feed off their emotion a little bit. It’s harder to not get upset and cry yourself at the end of the show, when you see someone else crying.
Jessica: Another unique aspect of the show is that when we weren’t speaking, we considered ourselves part of the audience. We’re supposed to react. And that helps the audience feel more comfortable, “Oh I can laugh at this point, or oh wow, this person’s saying something really horrible.”
Geoff: I found it easier to act with the audience than in rehearsal. I found that when the audience was there, I felt like I was speaking to them. I really enjoy an audience, I enjoy speaking to an audience, working with them.
THOMAS HOWARD, EDUCATION DIRECTOR OF THE MATTHEW SHEPPARD FOUNDATION, CAME TO A PERFORMANCE, WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
Jessica: After the performance I gave him a hug and said, “Can you come back for every show?” He was just a wonderfully engaging person. You felt like you could talk to him for days. He asked us, “What do you want to know about these people that you’re playing?” That’s when it really hit you: they’re friends with this guy and I’m portraying them onstage.
IS THAT A TERRIFYING THOUGHT?
Jessica: It would be if he wasn’t such a nice guy. If he wasn’t so darn nice I would have been a lot more intimidated.
Gerard: The other important thing he told us, and it was kind of a running theme throughout the performance, is that you can only claim ignorance until you’ve been educated. The audience, and we in the cast, have been educated through this experience.
ANY FAVORITE MOMENTS OR OTHER COMMENTS?
Aaron: I think it was during the last talk back session, one of the most thought-provoking comments was: How many people are just two or three beers away from doing the same thing? I think that’s the basis of where the teaching begins. Find that person, find the person who harbors these feelings of hatred towards other people. And start to educate them.
Gerard: I liked having people’s perspectives changed by this show. [Students] who had to attend for a class would tell me “I didn’t want to be there at first.” But afterwards. their world was turned around. They were really impacted by the show.
SO YOU GOT PLENTY OF FEEDBACK.
Phil: Oh yes, and it continues.
Geoff: For me it’s continuing. Also, one of my favorite parts was seeing people who’d never been in this theater before. Including the cast, some of us have been in here for classes but not for acting. And it think that speaks to Bill and the crew, to actually have the thought of bringing some new people in. That was probably a challenge for them. But I think that also helped bring some new people in to watch the show as well. And then to have the opportunity to work with experienced people like Jess and Adam [Spaugh ‘05, not present]. And to meet Doctor Barb [Liebhaber]… it had a profound impact on all of us. And I think we are like a family.
Chris: We’re not like one, we are one.
Barbara: We all have to--we chatted about this among ourselves--we really need to take the time to appreciate Bill’s talent. And what he brings to the College. I’ve known him for years as an assistant in the music department, because that’s where we worked together and that’s how I got to know Bill. And to see him in action here, it’s an incredible talent. To pull people together to work as a team, to do such work like this. And he insists that everyone does the best they can possibly do. He doesn’t allow anybody to do less than their best. He sets his expectations really high, and I don’t think he brings them down any little bit. He keeps them up there. He has the ability to make everybody want to do it. He motivates. So Moravian’s really very fortunate to have him here.
Phil: For me personally, I didn’t realize how much this production had impacted me actually until a few days ago. I’m an education major, I was in one of my ed classes and we were working over a hypothetical scenario with a student in high school who was being beaten up by other kids. As part of the scenario, we receive a note given to this student. It says, “You think you had it bad before, we don’t want queers here.” And when I read that it hit me on a deeper level than something ever had before. It was at that point that I realized this experience is something I never will forget. And I and everyone else will carry for the rest of our lives.
Bill: I’ve had people stop me on the street in downtown Bethlehem, people I don’t even know. Saying, “Thank you. It’s wonderful you did this.” I say, “I’m glad you were there.” But the one that got me was a student who said, “I had to go to this for a class, I had never seen a show without music before, never. And I was not looking forward to it.” And he just started talking about the production and the people that were in it and what he’s gotten out of it. How do you explain to people until it happens that this what theater and the arts are about? People should come together and talk. You don’t have to agree, you can talk about it.
WILL IT BE DIFFICULT TO DO AN “ORDINARY” PLAY AFTER THIS ONE?
Jessica: No, because this was a different...I didn’t like to call this a play. Because it wasn’t. It was a performance piece, it was a message. I still love acting, I still love plays and the land of make believe as much as I loved giving this message. I’m not going to be on stage going, “You know what, it’s just not as meaningful.” The other thing is, I believe that all theater has an important message. That’s the whole point. Greeks invented the theater to communicate to an audience. Even something light-hearted, like The Fantastics which we did last semester, that had a message, had to do with how things must die before they’re reborn, and bad must follow good. I always try to find the significance of what we’re doing.
Chris: It’s another acting experience that a person can draw upon in the next production. I don’t think it will be difficult. I’ve only acted twice. I think it’s just going to help me say, OK, I can approach it from this role now, or this role, or attack it some other way.Jessica: We could have done a table reading of this show and it would have affected some people. But really the quality of the show, and how well it was done, and how much work we put into it, really made it something entirely on its own. It was really cool to be part of something that was more important than just you. Big