By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Jarvell Williams, director of “The Laramie Project,” and Robert Zinni, social studies teacher at Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy and production education coordinator. “The Laramie Project,” via 4AM Productions, is 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 1-3 at Yavapai College, 1100 Sheldon St., 928-776-2000, $15 online, $20 door, student discounts available.]
Jarvell Williams, director of “The Laramie Project”
So what is “The Laramie Project”?
It’s a production created in 2000 by Tectonic Theater Project that was a response to the 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old openly gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming. It’s a collection of verbatim interviews from select residents of Laramie put together as a series of short scenes. … The story is about letting people talk about their experiences and how they feel in the aftermath of his death. There’s a lot about who he was as a person and how people view homosexuality in the town. There’s also some scenes about the trial of the two young men who attacked him and tied him to a fence. There’s also a portrayal of someone reflecting on that trial and how the town has just tried to move on and, more importantly, how it affected the entire country.
That’s some pretty heavy stuff.
It’s important to note that this was the most produced show in 2000 in high schools across the country, so it’s not too dark for anyone to handle. People wanted students to learn the story and act in it. It’s really just the subject matter itself that’s dark; there are no portrayals of his death. Everything on stage is the spoken words of the people interviewed. The majority of it is monologues. It’s a very actor-heavy production.
Is directing that kind of show difficult from a technical standpoint, given than few of the actors are on stage at the same time?
It’s actually easier. Any director will tell you tone isn’t set by one person or idea — it’s the entire composition of the play. Everyone’s part works together. The real challenge is honing the actors’ skills and bringing out the character in them. There’s really not too much blocking, not many set pieces or anything of that nature. It’s a simple production from a technical standpoint.
Why this play? Why now?
Well, it’s a highly contemporary topic. We’rein the aftermath of several hate crimes of a similar nature, including one of the most deadly shootings in history — the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. This show is a continuation of that discussion, and it’s important, even if you think it’s a “controversial,” “taboo” subject. It’s the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepherd’s death and “The Laramie Project” shows how important it is for communities to discuss these issues. It’s not really going away, and it won’t until you take individual accountability.
How do you bring more people into the discussion? How could “The Laramie Project” bring people into the conversation who’ve otherwise avoided it?
I suppose it all depends on how you interact with the people who might have a problem with it. There are certainly people who normally don’t think about these things. That’s why we have a cast completely comprised of students. Everyone listens when it comes to their kids and their children. That was one of the goals of doing this, actually. It wasn’t the original goals, but developed over time as things developed. And, really, the youth is where the change lies. Everyone talks about putting their faith and hopes into the next generation, but rarely do we help them take that next step, rarely do we equip them with better tools. This production does that, as well as the outreach program through Northpoint, Bradshaw Mountain, and Prescott high schools. We have students from all three in “The Laramie Project.” We’re helping them develop their own individual skills, dialogues, and conversations, and they’re going to go out in the world with that. This production helps you come to terms with yourself and your own prejudices and biases — no matter how privileged or oppressed you are. It shows how a community has to come together and say enough is enough.
What’s been the biggest challenge in staging “The Laramie Project” so far?
Basically, making sure the students are well-equipped enough to deal with some of these really heavy, really difficult topics. As I said, it’s a very actor-driven production. When people come and see these students, they’ll see the hard work they’ve done on their roles and themselves, navigating personal conflicts and adopting another mentality in order to portray these characters. The actors are ages 13-18 and they’re portraying characters all the way up to 89. That just shows you, an actor’s job is to grasp the humanity in a role regardless of nationality, age, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. They need to dig deep. …One of the biggest difficulties with acting is that you often, to some extent, portray yourself when you’re supposed to portray the character. Getting the actor outside of their comfort zone, outside of their projected identity they’ve honed for themselves, is one of the most important thing a director can do. Once that shell is broken, actors can do wonders.
What context does Prescott put on this show?
These are issues that everyone faces, not just people in Prescott. We love to talk about “The West” here, but everyone knows the majority of these issues play out in people’s homes, even if they’d like to think that’s not the case. This is a production that’s produced everywhere. Prescott is just where we happen to be. If we were in Chicago or Atalanta, we’d be doing the same thing. … I think it’s important for people to come out and see the theater, in general. It’s not just about spectacle; it’s about learning more about the world we live in and experiencing it through art.
Robert Zinni, educational coordinator and social studies teacher at Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy and production education coordinator
How did you end up involved in bringing “The Laramie Project” into Northpoint as part of the curriculum?
I was approached by John Duncan [Editor’s Note: John Duncan, of 4AM Productions, is also co-publisher of 5enses] and we talked about the potential of collaborating as part of our educational outreach program. After talking with John, I saw it meshed well with our freshman identity course where we look at not only self-discovery, but how society influences an individual. The scenes and concepts of “The Laramie Project” really fall in line with our semester-long topic, “Man in Mirror, Self in Society.” Next, I sat down with Jarvell, the director, and John, and nailed down the concept. “The Laramie Project” pretty much fell in line with the concepts I’d normally teach, including stereotyping, tolerance, acceptance, and how the media influences our identity, as well as hate crimes and LGBTQ+. We can study these things in a classroom, but it’s the real-life scenario that really pushes it home for many students. First, I asked my students to dig deep about how they want to identify, then about how they’ve ever felt discriminated against or been bullied so far in their lives. At that point, we then bring in news stories and historical events that connect with their personal lives, which helps give them insights and empathy for other people and the struggles they have to go through in life — even if it’s something that student will never experience. Eventually, this culminates in “Northpoint Confessionals,” which is where students open up and share their personal stories about discrimination they have experienced at the end of the semester. These small vignette reflect situations these students have gone through and how that’s affected their families, their community, and their school. At Northpoint, we strive to create projects that connect with the outside community, and the outreach potential for this is fantastic. Presenting what they’ve learned to an authentic audience — that gives it more meaning and more value. That method of experiential learning gives them more insight into the topic and themselves. … They’re researching some of these topics for the actors, who’ll be given packets of that synthesized information about what the different laws are in different states for hate crimes and regarding LGBTQ+ issues, influence of media, violence, punishment, religion, and more.
How does all of this play out in the classroom?
Well, we’re doing this interview in late August, and we’ve only had about two weeks of school. Right now, we’re finishing up our section on self-identity, that is, how we want to identify as individuals and how your peers identify you. There are different activities related to that. Next we have some literature, some reading about tolerance, and about historic influences, which brings us into some of the themes from “The Laramie Project.” This happens cross-curricularly at Northpoint. They have social studies with me, English class with Jeff Wood, and science class with Leah Sussman. In my class, we talk about the social impact; in the English it’s more about self-reflection and research; then, in science class, they will look at how social environment impacts and shapes these issues and impacts the mind. In art class with Liz Romberger, they’ll eventually help with the theater process, but right now they’re creating a graphic novel of their personal experiences. Later, that will help them craft their contribution to “Northpoint Confessionals.” … The idea is that everything crosses over in each class. We’re trying to promote acceptance and develop empathy and compassion over the course of a semester That’s part of our school culture. That’s why we look at social justice topics. TRhat way, when our students are out in the real world, they can make informed decisions and really positively impact their community.
That’s pretty ambitious. How do you accomplish all of that in a classroom setting?
We have strict deadlines at Northpoint. The way we do things is backward planning. You have the end project in mind and then you have to figure out what content is appropriate. So, as teachers, together, at the beginning, we go through the semester and see what’s possible. … If I have an idea, I propose it to my staff and see where we all fits. We try to collaborate as much as we can. We take a lot of ownership of how we frame what we do. We use Arizona state standards and Common Core standards for content that allows us to do hands-on activities and experiential learning. … With Jarvell and John, it came together organically over a couple of weeks. Then we discussed deadlines and saw there was a really good opportunity to facilitate these lessons, these projects, and allow our students the space for growth. Then I proposed it to the staff here. Yes, it’s a controversial topic, but we don’t shy away from controversial topics here. We want to bring real life events into the classroom and tie them into the academic standards. We ask our students to do so much self-discovery and service in the community — we really need to give them as many opportunities and tools as possible. You build this over the course of a semester and it really hits home the messages you’re trying to get a cross through experiential learning opportunities. We’re building the curriculum up through October, which’ll give the students three weeks to really take on “The Laramie Project,” apply it to their lives, and then culminate their experiences in “Northpoint Confessionals.”
Are the “Northpoint Confessionals” directly tied to “The Laramie Project”?
In a way. With Jarvell’s direction, these students are going to perform their small vignettes and present them to the community, as well as their graphic novels. The students are in charge of bringing in an authentic audience. That means inviting parents, friends, and community members to the showing, which is Oct. 26. As a teacher, I’ll reach out to some representatives and organizations in town to come, but it’s really up to these freshmen to gather the audience. … We’re really trying to communicate that people are people. We took the kids to Germany in May and sat down with a Holocaust survivor. Now, she was speaking in German, and we had a translator, but her message was to treat people as people. If we continue not respecting other people, we’ll continue to have discrimination issues. I really think “The Laramie Project” ties into our student body population at Northpoint and directly addresses issues of diversity and identity. Regardless of a student’s background, we want to help them develop empathy and compassion for all members of society. I think students really want to learn about theses issues, and we’re giving them a safe, healthy environment to explore them without judgement. We’re always trying to use these topics to create learning, and utilize teachable moments. In education, you plant a seed and hope that you nudge students in the right direction to help with their own inner turmoil and self development. I recognize I won’t see changes in students immediately. It’s something you plant a seed for and, hopefully, one day, it all clicks. We’re giving them skills, knowledge, and the opportunity to explore. … The only thing I would make sure to add is that what Jarvell is doing is wonderful and we’re lucky to have him. The stage manager, Lauren Meyer, is fantastic as well. John does a lot of amazing, influential work in our community, in Prescott, and I can’t say enough good things about him. This is a really unique opportunity for us and I’m glad we can take advantage of it.
“The Laramie Project,” via 4AM Productions, is 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 1-3 at Yavapai College, 1100 Sheldon St., 928-776-2000, $15 online, $20 door, student discounts available.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.