Love, tolerance and empathy the focus of 'The Laramie Project'

From left, John Lee, Dillon Walker, Avery Moore and Nick Deslattes rehearse a scene from "The Laramie Project" on Tuesday at the Dalton Little Theatre.

DALTON, Ga. — The Dalton Little Theatre is bringing “The Laramie Project,” a play that is said to have helped attenuate prejudice and instill tolerance through productions across the world since its premiere in 2000 in Colorado, to the community this weekend and next.

“This is one of the most popular plays of the 21st century,” said Will Schmerge, director of this production. “Globally, it’s enormous.” 

Nikki Sloane, a DLT veteran who is a member of this production’s cast, “really wanted to do this play,” she said. “This story is extremely important, (so) you want to be involved.” 

The play, by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, details the reaction to the brutal 1998 slaying of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, whose murder drew attention to the lack of hate crime laws in various states, including Wyoming. The play utilizes hundreds of interviews conducted by the theater company with Laramie residents, journal entries of members of the company, and news reports, with each cast member portraying several characters.

Schmerge’s history with “The Laramie Project” dates almost to the play’s beginning, as he acted in one of the first productions of this play not performed by the original theater troupe when he was a freshman at Skidmore College, he said. Of course, “I’ve lived a long life since I was 18,” so he has an even more profound appreciation for the play’s message now than he did two decades ago. 

Perhaps more than anything, this play implores “us to live as one, not ‘live and let live,’” he said. “Let’s not ignore diversity, but merge it and celebrate it.”

While “Live and let live” sounds acceptable in theory, “it’s oppressive to the people who are just being tolerated, who are just being allowed to live,” he said. “There still is so much intolerance, and this play is a mirror for all of us.” 

This Saturday will be the 21st anniversary of Shepard’s death, caused by his being beaten, tortured and left to die six days prior, so this production “really lines up,” said Avery Moore, a member of the cast. “It’s important to tell his story today to humanize it.”

Shepard “could have been your brother,” Sloane said. “He could have been your son.” 

Audience members ought to “come to the show with an open mind, and be ready to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes,” Moore said. “This show will make you laugh, it will make you cry, and it will make you angry.”

The play also “does a good job of seeing every viewpoint,” which is paramount to Sloane, she said. “If I’m going to portray somebody, I want their story told right.” 

Since her first DLT show (“Anne of Green Gables”) as a sophomore in high school, the DLT has been “a second home” for Sloane, she said. “I love being in front of people, even though I’m extremely introverted” off-stage. 

Moore also developed his passion for the stage in high school, and he’s been in each DLT show for the past six months, also assisting with production design on them all, and he certainly impressed Sloane with his work on “The Laramie Project.” 

“There’s a line in the play about ‘a sky so blue you can’t paint it,’” Sloane said. “I think (Moore) totally got that.” 

Moore feels “the gravity of the show, and I put all those emotions into the backdrops,” he said. “These are real people, in a real place, in real life, not just characters, but history.” 

This is Schmerge’s DLT directorial debut, as he only moved to Dalton within the last year, but after touring the space, “I immediately got a good feeling for what is going on here,” he said. “I’m a little less of a (theater) traditionalist,” and the DLT has afforded him room to “explore” with “The Laramie Project.” 

A key element to this play is that each cast member plays several characters, so “they are really being pushed, not just in speaking roles, but with all the movement,” he said. “They are constantly moving things around, so they’re required to be 100% (engaged) all the time.”

“Our blocking feels more like choreography, which brings more intensity to the process,” he added. “It’s a true ensemble.” 

Though she’s acted in more than 30 productions, “this has been a totally new experience,” Sloane said. “You have to trust one another.” 

In order to understand her list of characters for this show, Sloane actually matched each of them to people she knows in the Dalton area, she said. “I was able to identify someone I know for each (role), and think ‘How would they do it?’”

Moore has used a similar process.

“I try to look into detail whenever I meet people, and, doing that my whole life, I have created a catalogue to pull from,” he said. “In real life, we’re all just characters of the people we want to be.” 

The production opens Saturday at 7 p.m., with additional performances at 2 p.m. on Sunday, 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 18, and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19. Tickets are available online at daltonlittletheatre.com. Tickets may also be paid for at the door until 10 minutes before curtain call, but seats should be reserved in advance by calling (706) 226-6618. Tickets are $10 for students, $12 for seniors, $12 for DLT members and $15 for general admission. 

Though this production had to contend with more cast changes during rehearsals than Schmerge would have preferred due to unforeseen life circumstances for those actors, “we have the right group, we have the right energy, and we have the right heart to tell this story.”

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