A little more than two months ago my high school alma mater, St. Johnsbury Academy, engaged me as a freelance writer. I was thrilled – not just because I could make extra income doing something I love, but also because I’m excited to give something back to the community that gave me so much when I was a teenager.
The first article I wrote for them was about a student-directed play that was being rehearsed at the time. It was The Laramie Project and the subject matter is intense – it’s the story of the community of Laramie, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard was brutally killed in 1998 for being gay.
That show was entered into the one act regional one-act festival and won. It competed at the state one-act festival and won. This weekend, they’ll be heading to the New England festival.
Tonight they did another performance for the community and I finally got to see the full show. It was truly remarkable. It was some of the most mature student theater I’ve ever seen – high school or college.
What boggles the mind even more is the circumstances in which these teenagers are handling this material. One of their teachers, Melissa Jenkins, was brutally killed just a few weeks ago. They are not just performing this material – they’ve been living it. As the play finished I heard an audience member say, “That hit a little too close to home, didn’t it?” It’s the kind of “life imitates art” scenario that none of us would want to experience, and most of these performers aren’t even 18 yet.
Tonight’s performance was a benefit for Melissa Jenkins’ son. I think it was also a benefit to the community – a place to continue the healing process, a way to take another step toward forgiveness.
To this group of nine young actors, I say thank you. I can’t imagine how difficult this has been for all of you. Thank you for putting your hearts on the line. Thank you for taking us along with you.
No matter what happens this weekend, you’ve already won. Bravo.
Here is the text of the article that I wrote for that first St. Johnsbury Academy “Academy Stories” article: (the original can be found by clicking here)
ACTING WITH DIGNITY
By Leah Carey, ’92
Sitting in Fuller Hall on an afternoon a couple weeks ago, watching a rehearsal for The Laramie Project, I fall back in time—20 years ago I stood on this same stage, doing the same exercises, with head of Academy Theatre Bill Vinton watching our every move. And yet, despite the similarities, what’s happening here today is distinctly different.
First, The Laramie Project is not typical high school fare. The show examines the aftermath of the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay University of Wyoming student. The play draws on hundreds of interviews with people from Laramie, Wyoming. Each of the actors is called to perform many roles during the course of the performance.
Second, director Patrick Hatch ’12 is not only a student; he’s also one of the actors in the show. Mr. Vinton is overseeing the production as a faculty director, but it’s clear that he’s giving support rather than taking the lead.
In a brief lull in the action, eight students stand on the bare stage in Fuller Hall and look to Hatch for their next direction.
How did this high school senior end up directing such an ambitious project? It started in the fall, when Hatch had to decide what topic to explore for his senior Capstone project. Having spent his entire Academy career participating in theatre, and drawing on his personal passion to end bullying, he decided to use theatre as a vehicle to stop bullying and spread respect.
Hatch approached Vinton about directing a show as part of his Capstone. They settled on The Laramie Project, although Vinton wasn’t certain how that decision would play with the administration and the community. Not long ago he produced the show Chicago on the stage at Fuller Hall and there were people who thought it was too salacious for a high-school production. “I was gun shy,” Vinton said. “But I’ve always wanted to do The Laramie Project because I think it’s important.”
Vinton and Hatch spoke with Assistant Headmaster for Campus Life, Beth Choiniere. “She said ‘You have to do it,’’” remembered Mr. Vinton. “We’re dealing with bullying issues now.”
For his Capstone presentation on December 2, Hatch did a PowerPoint presentation with statistics and facts about bullying. Cast members Nora Gair ’13 and Lindsey Newton ’13 presented a short scene from The Laramie Project. Gair said, “When we were done, the whole audience was in tears.”
Now, the cast is full of excitement. They know this is powerful and that they’re doing something special.
“This is so real,” Newton said. “When you say a line, this is what someone actually said. It’s not fantasy. You’re not a bright, bouncy princess in this show. It’s a new way to delve into acting. It’s more of a simmer and less of a bang.”
For Sam Zuk ’13, the reality goes even deeper. “It’s special to do this show because it’s personal to me. I’m gay. This happened not that long ago. [The Laramie Project] shows hate, but it also shows what good can come out of it.”
As Zuk announces with quiet confidence that he is gay, several of the female cast members say in unison, “And he’s out!” You can hear the pride and affection in their voices for the bravery their friend demonstrates each day just by showing up as he is.
Stage manager Katelyn Graves ’12 understands this show from a very visceral place. “This show is special to me. I grew up with two moms. In preschool my best friend was pulled out of school when they found out I had two moms.” She says she cries during almost every rehearsal.
In different words, each of the students expresses how this show transcends memorizing your lines and hitting your marks. “We’re portraying real people and tapping into what they’re feeling,” explained Jessica Beliles ’12. “You hope you can do it with dignity.”
Hatch is taking many lessons from this experience, especially about how to maintain a leadership position that allows both collaboration and friendships to flourish. He says his greatest lesson, though, is about standing up for what he believes in.
“I think that’s the most rewarding part of this whole process. My whole idea is that if one person is touched, then it was worth it. It doesn’t have to be ten or a thousand that come up to me and tell me this was the best play in the world. If one person does that, it’s worth all the time and energy I put into it.”
As rehearsal continues, Hatch stops a scene and turns to Vinton. “From a director’s standpoint, how would you do this?” Vinton responds that he would try the scene a few different ways, giving a suggestion for a possible tweak. In the background the girls chat and Zuk does pirouettes and improvises a short ballet combination.
Vinton says that times have changed since he started at the Academy. “We have a Gay-Straight Union now. People are feeling a lot more comfortable.” Just as Vinton says this, a line from the play rings out clearly above everything else: “Hate is not a Laramie value.”
Patrick Hatch is hoping that he and his cast can leave their mark on the Academy and surrounding community. Their message is clear:
Hate is not a Hilltopper value.