Mockingbird Theatre is proud and excited to bring Melbourne audiences the return of the acclaimed Green Room award-winning staging of The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and Members of The Tectonic Theatre Project. Fresh from the critically acclaimed season of The McNeil Project at 45Downstairs, where he both co-starred and co-produced, Luke McKenzie is excited to be joining the cast of The Laramie Project opening this week.

Versatile seems to be McKenzie's middle name as he juggles his time between the stage and screen. Known for his work as Lachie on Channel 9's Rescue Special Ops, which earned him a Logie nomination for Best New Talent, and playing young Mick Gatto in Underbelly II  as well as his work on The Gruen Transfer and Headland. He is currently filming Winners and Losers. It is an effortless transition from the small screen to the stage for McKenzie.  His stage time includes work with Griffin Theatre, NIDA, Newtown Theatre and the Bondi Pavillion as well as STILL for Mad March Hare Theatre earlier this year.

McKenzie readily credits Russell Crowe's appearance in Gladiator as having a direct influence on his desire to further his acting career. " I studied drama in year 11 and 12 but it was mainly to hang around the girls," he quips. "Acting was always the number one "dream job" I could think of, but didn't actually take action until just after high school when I saw that film. Straight away I went and started studying acting, then made it my life."

McKenzie now finds himself as part of the ensemble cast of Mockingbird Theatre's The Laramie Project which premiered to a sold-out season at Chapel Off Chapel in 2005 and is now being staged by director (and Artistic Director and Founder of Mockingbird Theatre) Chris Baldock and a cast of some of Melbourne’s best actors portraying over 90 characters. Baldock is an award winning actor and director who has accumulated an enviable body of work that continues to be hailed with critical acclaim.  His rehearsal room is a place where actors are encouraged, above all else, to search for the truth. McKenzie was drawn to the project by three things: The history Baldock had with the show. The story itself and its composition, and Baldock's attitude to it. "He was after truth and nothing else. I like that.," states McKenzie.

McKenzie defines a good director as being: " Someone who knows what they want. Who develops a safe place to explore and create the show within. Someone who challenges you to push yourself. Who is open to suggestions and collaborates. Critical thinkers, open minds, sharp observations. Also just someone who makes it fun- we are all in that room sacrificing some aspect of our lives to be there, so you'd want to have fun creating." So how does this definition sit within the rehearsal room Baldock has created for The Laramie Project? "We are all starting to really gel at this point. It's a great group we have," says McKenzie. "Everyone is supportive which makes for a really great space to relax into. Chris is direct, but gentle. There is no ego in his direction, but it can be very direct and cheeky-which is fun. It works because his only desire is to serve the story. That's where he leverages his respect and it makes for a trusting group dynamic."

The foundations for this extraordinary story actually began in 1998 when a 21 year old gay student was kidnapped, savagely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. His name was Matthew Shepard. Four weeks after this event Moises Kaufman and a further 8 members of the New York Based Tectonic Theatre Project arrived in Laramie to set about conducting interviews. The purpose of these interviews was two-fold: Firstly, to challenge traditional ideas of how plays are constructed specifically the notion of theatrical language and theatrical story telling and, secondly, to discover what happens to a town after an event of this magnitude. The play was two years in the making and finally opened in Denver in 2000. Kaufman has said that creating The Laramie Project had been a 'great revelation about our ideas, about our nation about ourselves.'

The result of this work is a breathtaking theatrical collage that explores  the human condition – with all its flaws, frailties and beauty – without judgement chronicling only what happened and seeking only the truth. It is an important piece because it allows the people of Laramie to speak without censor or fear of recrimination.  There is a terrible sadness about this piece as well as a practicality – profiling hate-crime –  but underneath it all is a feeling of euphoric hope and that, I feel, is the gift that we – the audience – are ultimately and  intimately  given. The intense power of the play is shared by audience and actor alike. "I think the fact that this play moves so many people is a testament to power of the story," says McKenzie. "I connect with the over arching theme of equality. I believe-regardless of sexual orientation or more broadly, colour or creed; we are all created equal. I'm so happy to be involved in a play that continually speaks to so many people around the world and helps us re-visit our history, however dirty it may be, so that we maintain vigilance against repeating our low points as humans."

A celebrated outcome of the work, as well as the unfaltering diligence of Shepard's parents and friends, was that on October 22, 2009, the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Matthew Shepard Act for short), and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law.

The play calls for 8 actors to portray the 90 odd characters which is a divine challenge for the right actors. "It is important to create differentiation with  characters," admits McKenzie. "They are, predominantly, around the same age, authority figures and from the same town. It has to be kept very naturalistic, so you have to stop yourself creating commedia characters. So I guess, yeah, keeping differentiation and subtlety across the range. But it's fun."

Director Baldock has accumulated  a dream team of exceptional actors who are, as individuals, immensely skilled in the craft of acting and, as an ensemble,  simply electrifying! Adam Ward, Christian Heath, Debra Low,  Maggie Chretién, Sarah Reuben, Scott Middleton, Tamara Donnellan and, of course, Luke McKenzie make up the cast that will bring life to this powerful stage event that will touch and change all who witness it.

Mockingbird Theatre Presents The Laramie Project – Opening This Week
October 26 – November 11
Chapel Off Chapel

Photographer: Sarah Walker