One Play, 24 Actors, 68 Characters

The cast rehearses on a Thursday night. Photo: Kalana Bradford

The cast rehearses on a Thursday night.
Photo: Kalana Bradford

On March 17th-19th, Branson acting teacher and director Maura Vaughn and a cast of Branson students will put on The Laramie Project, a play based on interviews with the townspeople of Laramie, Wyoming who lived during the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Maura described why she chose this play: “It’s a beautifully written piece, and it’s a different kind of theater than we’ve done in a couple of years, so it gave the actors a different kind of challenge. First and foremost I’m an educator, and so I look at what my students have been able to do, and I try to pick what is going to be the most challenging script. But also, I had in mind that I really wanted a script that looked at the world in which they live. I think it’s unbelievably disturbing that there’s so much violence towards kids right now, and so much violence towards young black males.”

She views The Laramie Project as “an opportunity for the community to open up conversation about why someone [would be] driven to do violence towards another person, specifically because of something they don’t understand or is different from them or assumptions they make.”

The play features 68 different characters, an impressive feat when there are only 24 cast members. Although these numbers pose a challenge for Maura, she pointed out that one benefit “is that everybody really is an ensemble. Everybody is responsible not just for what they do in the show, but the show in its entirety.”

The greatest challenge for the actors is how to develop these characters without allowing personal feelings to impact their acting: “ Some of them are playing characters that they would not like and they don’t agree with their politics or how they handle themselves in the world, but they have to still create those people in three-dimension, they can’t just make them the villain…If we tell the audience what we think when we act, we don’t give the audience the opportunity to learn on their own. Theater is an experiential thing. You want the audience to be able to go on the full journey.”

Freshman Christopher Nolan said that one big challenge is how to “make it as realistic as possible and bring real emotions to the set and feel what the real-life characters were feeling while performing.”

Sophomore Gibson Morris agreed, explaining, “It’s hard to become somebody who you really have nothing in common with. I’m the father of one of the accused and I’m also a Catholic priest, two things which I really don’t have any thing in common with in my normal life. The tricky part is how to get under the skin of a person that you’ve never met.”

Greg Pierotti, one of the authors of The Laramie Project, ran a workshop with the Branson actors to prepare for the show. Christopher discussed how helpful it was to be with someone who was a part of that experience. “There’s sort of an emotional attachment that I could feel that he had with Laramie,” said Christopher, “so having a sense of that helped everybody a part of the cast [understand] and feel what actually was going on in Laramie when he was doing it: the troubles he had to face, the good moments, and the bad moments.” Maura appreciated the opportunity to discuss the play with someone so in-tune with all elements of the story. She said, “Very rarely do you get to ask a playwright, ‘Why did you do it this way?  What happened here?’ ”

Although “Matthew Shepard’s death was a catalyst,” Maura explained, “The Laramie Project isn’t really about Matthew Shepard; it’s really about all of us and what happens to all of us.”