Playing a fictional character is one thing. Portraying an actual person, whom your director has met numerous times, is another dilemma altogether.
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That's been the challenge for the eight actors in Perseverance Theatre's current production of "The Laramie Project," a real-life exploration of Laramie, Wyo., in the aftermath of the October 1998 fatal attack on gay college student Matthew Shepard.
Ten writers from the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project wrote the play after six trips to Laramie and 200 interviews with townspeople and relatives of Shepard and his attackers.
Head writer Leigh Fondakowski has directed the play in Juneau, and this is her first time working with a cast other than the play's original ensemble. She deliberately brought no tapes of previous productions, to see how the Juneau cast would interpret the roles.
"Laramie" wraps up with six shows this weekend: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
what: "the laramie project," written by the tectonic theater project, presented by perseverance theatre
where: perseverance mainstage, douglas
when: 7:30 p.m. wednesday, thursday, friday and saturday; 2 p.m. saturday and sunday. closes this weekend.
"These are real people and you kind of want to honor them," ensemble member Ryan Conarro said. "It certainly brings a new level of perspective to the text. These people are still walking around somewhere. Having Leigh in the room, she really gave us a lot of information up front, but she did want us to interpret the characters on our own."
"Usually when you get a character in a play, you have full creativity over them," ensemble member Marinda Anderson said. "But because these people were real people, Leigh would often tell us that person would never do that, that person would never cross their legs like that."
Anderson, from Memphis, Tenn., and Ericka Lee, from Houston, have stayed in Juneau for "Laramie" after performing in "Hair" earlier this year. Both graduated from Howard University. Neither had seen Tectonic's play before, but both were familiar with Shepard's story from the media blitz that hit Laramie in October 1998.
"Honestly, when these big stories happen on TV, I might watch once or twice, and then I'm tired of hearing it. It doesn't become real anymore," Lee said. "This gave me a different perspective on it. I get to see how people experienced the crime and how they felt about it. If the crime happened (in Juneau), it would be the same type of reaction."
"This would be a horrible case if it were a gay man or a black man or a Native man or an Asian man," Anderson said. "What I really enjoyed about the play is that it gets every point of view. I love each character for what they stand for and what they believe."
Lee gets some of the biggest laughs in the play for her portrayal of Marge Murray, a lifelong Laramie resident whose daughter, Reggie Fluty (played by Anderson), was the first officer to respond when a bicyclist found Shepard's body in a desolate field.
"Marge, my first time reading her, I just bombed it," Lee said. "I couldn't get the flow of the way she spoke, but that was the fun part. She was probably the first character I was comfortable with, and then it was (club DJ) Shadow. The Baptist minister I'm still struggling with. I get him, and then I don't. He's hard-core (in favor of the) death penalty, but he still cares about people. That's the complexity of him."
Father Roger Schmit (played by Conarro) has one of the most poignant scenes in the play, when he urges the playwrights to write accurately, truthfully and verbatim.
"I was raised Catholic, and I think that Father Roger was one of the clergy people in Laramie who responded with the most openness and the most acceptance to Matthew Shepard's sexuality," Conarro said. "He didn't judge him, and tried to support him in any way. He sounded like he connected with (Matthew) on a personal level. I really appreciated his character. It was humbling to be able to portray that."
Korry Keeker can be reached at email@example.com