The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and members of the New York based Tectonic Theater Project, is verbatim theatre at its finest. Taking the 1998 brutal attack and murder of gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard, as its investigative prompt, the members of Tectonic set out to uncover the town’s reaction to this horrific (later to be known as) hate crime. Members travelled to Wyoming over many months and conducted hundreds of interviews – from teachers to politicians to priests, and other religious representatives, to friends of Matthew’s and friends of both the accused, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. These interviews, along with news articles and other related artefacts, became the final play which is written for 8 actors to perform 60+ characters. The work has been performed non stop since its inception and continues to tell the vital and potent story of Matthew Shepard and his legacy.
For director Nicky Neville–Jones, the authenticity of the work, plus the fact that it is guided by factual material, is one of the things that inspires her the most.
“I love the fact that the play is real transcripts and recordings of the townspeople of Laramie, the Court and the medical professionals and police connected to the crime and yet the text seems so poetic,” she says. “Because the characters are real it makes the text so much more hard hitting and dramatic, particularly hearing the various views of the crime and the aftermath. The text is then divided into “Moments” which have also been crafted in such a way to make the text even more poetic and heartbreaking.”
Neville–Jones’ show, produced by BottledSnail Productions, is soon to open at Chapel off Chapel and promises to be a not to be missed show. As a not-for-profit production company, run by and for legal professionals, BottledSnail Productions boasts over 27 creative projects since its inception in 2013. They have helped raise over $45,000 for charity, including the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation.
Neville–Jones believes The Laramie Project was the perfect play for BottledSnail Productions.
“BottledSnail is a not-for-profit production company for lawyers run by lawyers, so I wanted to pitch a play that was not only challenging for a director and the actors, but also had legal concepts and issues that would leave the audience thinking,” she says. “While the Laramie Project is not a new play, the crime and the law reform it inspired, including hate crime legislation in America, means that an Australian audience will hopefully connect with the story and consider where we stand with respect to human rights, LGBTIQ rights and hate crime. For example, Victoria does not have hate crime legislation. Personally, I am much more of a fan of plays that are heavily dramatic or sombre but also making you think, rather than simply wallowing in intense pathos which sometimes can leave audiences just feeling exhausted. The Laramie Project is confronting and centres on a horrific crime, however because it is beautifully crafted, poetic and uplifting. I am hopeful that our production will leave the audience feeling this way.”
The running time of the play is usually around the 2 and 1/2 hour mark with two intermissions. It is a demanding play on both audiences and actors but also a rewarding play for both sides of the theatre. While on a minimalistic stage, there can be many staging logistics for both director and actor as Neville–Jones explains.
“Save for the interval, the actors are on the stage the whole time and each play several characters. As a Director this meant that every move of the actor on stage had to be carefully mapped out between each Moment allowing for actors to move around the space, change into various costumes and delegate which actor moves the basic set at the beginning of each Moment – 8 chairs, one table and the fence. It was extremely important when blocking the play at the very beginning to also block these things, too, otherwise it could have been a nightmare. It was like a very difficult jigsaw puzzle that thankfully, as a Director who is also lucky to have 8 very talented actors in the cast, tackling the play in this way means that now the actors move around the space like a well-oiled machine which also hopefully will make for an impressive piece of theatre. I’m also grateful for my amazing Stage Manager and costume Designer who helped us achieve this.”
This is Neville–Jones’ first foray into the direction of a three act play so, she admits, that at the beginning the experience was very daunting, however her many years of experience saw her tackle the challenge head on. In fact, Neville-Jones has grown to really enjoy directing.
“As an actor I thought I might get that feeling that other actors turned directors get to jump on the stage and act out the scene, but I didn’t, I really enjoy the creative process and instructing the actors, who I think, seemed to generally follow where I was going and my overall vision,” she says. “I think as an actor turned director, I was aware that the cast needed to be clear what my overall plan for the production was and what we were trying to aim for, so they didn’t feel lost during the rehearsal process. One on one acting character work, in addition to group rehearsals, was very important as a Director in this production given the challenge for each actor to bring various characters to life.”
As far as Neville-Jones’ favourite part of the rehearsal process goes it is when actors are “off book” and you start to really see their characters develop. “It is great fun assisting them with the character development process particularly in the one on one rehearsals I had with the actors in this production,” she says.
Neville -Jones is a Family Lawyer but also has a background in theatre and thus her relationship with BottledSnail was perhaps preordained. She has acted in plays in amateur theatre companies around Melbourne since her University days ( including Brighton, Peridot and quite a few productions at Malvern Theatre Company). A couple of years ago she took part in a rehearsed “Play Reading” for BottledSnail and from there commenced her involvement with the company and the rest, as they say, is history.
” I was then approached to pitch a play to BottledSnail given my theatre background and after forging relationships with other “Snails”. I now also sit on the BottledSnail committee which is great because it means as a Director of a major production I have more control of the process and links to the committee members who have assisted me including the Artistic Director of BottledSnail, Sam Pearce, who directed BottledSnail’s last major production “Into the Woods” in February 2018.”
The company and production have been supported by a grant as well as interest and support from one of the country’s leading human rights lawyers – Neville-Jones explains.
“We were lucky to have been given a grant from the Victoria Law Foundation because of the educational elements of this production. We are also lucky to have human rights lawyer, Lee Carnie, from Equality Australia to be speaking on the themes of the play at 7pm on Opening Night. I am hopeful that the educational element of the play and themes including hate crime and human rights will have an impact on the audience and make them think about how far we have come and perhaps the steps we will need to take also in relation to LGBTIQ rights.”
The Laramie Project is a significant work which continues to resonate with most who see it. It has become a symbol of recognition and hope as well as serving to challenge, with thought provoking imagery, the preconceived ideas about LGBTIQ life choices that are perhaps held by some people. It is, above all, a human story that will stir and prod the humanity in all of us!
Says Neville-Jones: “The Laramie Project is an extremely popular play for a reason, not only because it is a real story and so unique, but also because of the various issues it tackles particularly hate crime. I am tremendously grateful for having such a wonderful cast and production crew who have all worked together to create a visually complicated and impressive piece of theatre. ”
Dates: 21 February to 2 March 2019
Time: 7pm on 21 Feb and 7.30pm for all other performances (two hours and 30 minutes plus interval)
Venue: Chapel Off Chapel, 12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran
Cost: Full $35 / Concession $27
Tickets: via chapeloffchapel.com.au/show/the-laramie-project
Contains: The performance contains coarse language and adult themes and as such, is recommended for those aged 15+.