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‘The Laramie Project’ comes to life at the Majestic Theatre

Friday, January 17, 2014

DERRY – The Majestic Academy of Dramatic Arts will present “The Laramie Project,” from Thursday, Jan. 23, through Saturday, Jan. 25.

Featuring an ensemble cast under the tutelage of director Candace Gatzoulis, the play by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theatre Project tells the story of a University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, who was kidnapped, savagely beaten and left to die tied to a fence in the middle of the prairie outside Laramie, Wyo., for the “crime” of being gay.

While it’s been 14 years since the play first debuted, the subject matter, still tender, has only grown in controversy over time. Gatzoulis admitted she knew little about the project before reading the script.

“I wasn’t really familiar with the play,” she said. “I know that with having so many sessions with the cast, I think it still has the same relevance that it did back then. What’s interesting about this particular show is that you get a look inside the minds of so many individuals. There is just such a diverse opinion base in this particular town, which you wouldn’t be able to get in NYC or in a much larger city where it would have been handled very differently.”

Gatzoulis said what’s important and unique about this project is that these hotbed issues still exist.

“There are so many people who believe in more conservative values and lifestyles and those that are kind of in between and those who are very afraid and liberal,” she said. “In this show, we have the ability to show all sides of that. And those grey areas where people aren’t entirely sure about how they feel, but what they would like to see legally done, enforceable rights, it’s just a very interesting way to explore ideas of homosexuality and how people see it.”

As for clear and present obstacles, Gatzoulis said she asked Majestic Theatre Artistic Director Robert Dionne for the script prior to taking on the project.

“I wanted to make sure I was comfortable with the script in the way the topic was suggested,” Gatzoulis said. “I am pretty conservative as an actor and a director and as an individual in general. I like to advocate for social issues but I’m concerned about the wording and how graphic things can be. There is only a certain level of comfort that I have. But this script is so beautifully written that I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. I have to do this. This is such an important topic for the cast to explore, to be able to introduce it to an audience that has never seen it and I was just completely drawn to it.’ It’s just very well written.”

As for trepidations about rocking the moral boat with its intense subject matter, Gatzoulis said, “I think it’s one of those things where people won’t recognize the title and I say, ‘I’ve heard so much about this show – we need to go see it’ – like they’re going to see a ‘Cinderella’ or a ‘Wizard of Oz.’ I think ‘Laramie Project’ is show that you have heard about it and you really want to see it or the actors and friends will want to come see the show because it’s very compelling, eye-opening for some. But I don’t think the general audience that comes will be completely shocked by the content. They’ll know something going into it.”

According to Gatzoulis, the cast played an intricate part in the formation and melding of the play by sharing their own personal experiences.

“This has been a very collaborative process,” she said. “We started out the first couple of months exploring the characters, improvising a lot of the scenes – we even had the actors provide their own idea of why certain scenes were included, what was the lesson to be learned, why was that character important to give the full range of opinions in that particular town.

“We also had plenty of open discussions about homosexuality, sexuality in general, also the general idea of respect for other individuals, regardless of religion, race, gender, lifestyle choices and we have had people share some of their own stories, which has been fantastic for some of the younger cast members to hear,” Gatzoulis said. “We have a lot of teens who are between the ages of 13 and 16 and some of the adults have been able to share some of their experiences over the years. It’s been awesome. The cast is very close.”

Deeply complex, the play ultimately isn’t a testament of right and wrong, but a story of respect.

“I think the people we have are fantastic but they didn’t really know what they were in for until they got the script,” Gatzoulis said. “And one of the biggest challenges for some of the cast is they love this story, but they also love the opinions, regardless of whether they’re in line with how they feel or not. Our interest has been that these are real people; how do we bring these real people’s words and personalities to life in a respectful way?”

That’s been the biggest challenge for everyone.

For tickets, call 669-7469 or visit www.majestictheatre.net .

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