Laramie, a small rural American town of 26,000 people, became the focus of a media frenzy in 1998. This play is based on more than 200 interviews carried out between 1998 and 1999, following the tragic death of Matthew Shepard.
Our cast of 20 students play more than 60 characters to bring this masterpiece of verbatim theatre to the stage to re-tell the story of Matthew.
This week we are joined by Year 13 students and cast members Maddy Caughey (Taylor), Hotene Ngaropo-Tuia (Parnell), alongside professional actor and acting coach for the students, Stanley Andrew Jackson to talk about their experience working on the play.
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Stanley, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in working with the students on this show?
Stanley Andrew Jackson: I studied for 4 years in Washington D.C. and that’s where I got my BFA in Acting. After that I did a Shakespeare programme in Oxford for four months, and after what was my first time leaving America I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school overseas. So I moved and got my masters at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where I graduated from in 2015. I was offered a job that November with the Pop Up Globe in New Zealand, where the Shakespeare teacher from my programme was directing one of shows. My first question was, “Where’s New Zealand?” because I didn’t really know. I did a bit of research and made the bold decision to accept the job and also to come over on a one-way ticket.
Last year I performed in Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night and during the shows there was one ruckus audience member, who had come to the show multiple times, and that was John Cummins. You start to notice the faces that show up over and over. I would go to the bar next door after the show and it was there I met John and where he told me he was doing this production at King’s College and I said: “I really love working with younger people and love teaching acting, I would love to come work with your students sometime”. So last year was the first time I came and helped and this year I’ve come back.
Maddy and Hotene, Tell us a little bit about the play and your roles in it?
Hotene Ngaropo-Tuia: The Laramie Project follows the beating and murdering of a young man named Matthew Shepard, who was attending the Unviersity of Wyoming at the time. It follows the case for why he was killed and beaten up by two people. It’s about trying to figure out whether what was done was a hate crime or just done without a motive. The show is unravelling his case and trying to unravel the secrets that Wyoming has as a state. They’ve never been exposed to this idea of how they feel about homosexuality because they’ve never had to confront a question like the one they do. There had never been such a serious incident in such a small town. The show highlights the true opinions people had and how they felt about what happened and shows them speaking up about it, or not, as the case may be. That’s what I’ve tried to take away from the play and hopefully put on stage.
I play four different characters. Jon Peacock(Matthew’s Academic Advisor), Moisés Kaufman (Director of the play), Murdoch Cooper and Denis Shepard (Matthew’s Dad)
Maddy Caughey: It’s a dynamic play because there are a set number of people in the cast but each person is playing multiple characters. It’s quite interesting in the way it is constructed, more as monologues than conversations between characters, which is a challenge when trying to create a flowing piece. We’ve used transitions, which are quite challenging and interesting. I don’t think a King’s audience would have seen anything like it before.
I play Reggie Flutey (the police woman who found Matthew) and I also play one of the teachers at the University of Wyoming.
SAJ: It’s a difficult play to put on because not only is the message diffucult but it’s episodic in nature. It was developed by a group of actors who went to Laramie to research, so the characters are real people. The playwright doesn’t reference scenes but rather calls them moments because they are basically just a moment in time, a moment of their conversation, a moment in the courtroom, a moment of someone’s speech. What we’ve tried to do to give a clear journey through the plays episodic nature is do a bit of devising. We’ve looked into devising ways to transition into a scene and out of another, from one moment into the next.
What’s it like working with Stanley?
MC: It’s really interesting. He brings a whole different vibe and helps add to the detail in areas such as our accents. It helps having Stanley here, his intense passion has lifted this play and I don’t know what it would look like without him here. I think he helps deepen everyone’s appreciation for drama and for the play.
HNT: You know there are a lot of ways to direct and tell people what to do but it’s a lot harder to show people and help them. Stanley is really good at being able not to tell us what he is thinking but at the same time getting us to show him our way of thinking. He’s helped us access our own skill, talent and ideas and it’s been truly effective.
And Stanley, vice-versa, what’s it like working with the students at King’s?
SAJ: I’ll tell you the truth, and I will be really honest, they probably weren’t telling the whole truth about me. I love working with young people. In groups like this there are some students where I can see that “yes you care about this issue” and then there are challenges, because sometimes kids are doing this as an extra-curricular and that is difficult. But then there are amazing days when everyone is on board and you just want to go home and cry and say “yesterday was such an amazing day with the kids.” It’s all a juggling act.
It’s always a pleasure though because regardless of what I may perceive, this play and this process is leaving an imprint on the lives of these students and that brings me a supreme amount of joy, regardless of whether I feel that every rehearsal has been beneficial to each and every one of them. I value their bravery to tackle this story that has a world wide message.
Let’s talk about that worldwide message. What’s it like performing this work to a New Zealand audience? Is it relevant to those coming to see the show at King’s?
HNT: It’s based in America but it is battling a topic that is global. It’s about the hate around homosexuality and, not only that, but the unspoken hate that is not actually brought up and no one wants to talk about. Whether we take this play on in New Zealand or Germany or anywhere else in the world, it’s all about grasping the same message, and as actors that’s our job.
And Stanley, how does the work differ from working on classical theatre like Shakespeare?
SAJ: Work is work and messages are messages. Whether it’s with classical text or whether it’s with modern text, it’s all about what someone is saying. It’s just about people and sometimes artists have to use different forms of language to convey messages but it always comes down to communication with one another and with an audiencce. For me, it doesn’t really matter, I actually prefer contemporary work. Having studied in classical theatre makes me a better actor because it’s the most difficult form of acting. So if you can go there, then you can do anything.
Tell us what your plans are after leaving King’s. Do you intend to continue acting?
MC: I’ve been doing acting my whole life and whilst it’s probably not the career I am interested in, I know that I will take the skills I have learnt with me into the future. I think it’s a real shame if you don’t do theatre because it’s an amazing opportunity for anyone to build confidence, learn to present themselves to a group of people, or take on someone else’s character and learn how to see things from another perspective. You almost help create an awareness about how other people view the world.
HNT: Acting’s always been a massive hobby of mine and I’ve always enjoyed it. I took up drama and I ended up really enjoying it. I don’t think I want an acting career but I am already looking at what plays the University is going to be doing next year because there is no doubt in my mind that I want to be involved. I act to express myself and to meet new people, which is what I really love doing: meeting people that I haven’t met before. In drama you get a whole variety of people, you get everybody: People doing it for the first time and people who have been doing it for years.
What’s your favourite piece of theatre?
MC: I love Othello. We studied it in English recently and I connected with it on every level. We even got to see it at the Pop Up Globe. I love the aspect of jealousy and how it can completely unravel you and what it can do to a person. I also just love Iago’s manipulation.
HNT: I enjoy movies more than plays and musicals, being involved in acting. I’ve always tried to do TV and movies. But I really like the Book of Mormon and Wicked.
Stanley: I love new work. It’s funny, I do Shakespeare but I love doing new work. I love Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea, which is about this African-American male who is graduating from high school and is on track to go to College but has a dream of his ancestors telling him he has to jump into the sea, to change and right the wrongs that society had put upon them and his family. People think he is crazy and no-one believes him. He ends up jumping in the sea with the hope that it will free his people from some form of captivity. It’s my favourite play that I have done.
What sort of message do you hope the audience that come to this performance will take away from the show?
HNT: I think it’s a bold move to do this play in New Zealand. The play focuses on having an unbiased perspective, because it’s not what the director is saying but what people are saying themselves. Instead of telling people “this is what you should believe”, I want them to say, “this piece helped me form an opinion on this issue.”
MC: I hope they come away with more of an open mind and I think it will be good for them to see this new side to theatre they probably haven’t seen before: interviews crafted into a play. I hope we do it justice and they see that we did such an intense and difficult play justice. This isn’t just a co-curricular, it’s more than that for everyone involved.
SAJ: I hope they have a conversation. That’s what I always want theatre to do, to make people have a conversation. I can’t determine how someone is going to feel, I can’t determine if someone is going to hate or love it and you can hate it, as long as you talk about it. I hope the audience have a conversation and hopefully a perspective shift.