COLUMBIA — Matthew Shepard’s ugly death touched Kiely Schlesinger, a Stephens College student who directed her reaction to the stage.
"I read through (the script), and then I watched ‘The Matthew Shepard Story,’ and it really started sinking in that this is an important story that needs to be told, and people need to hear it,” Schlesinger said.
Show times: 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 27; 7:30 p.m., Oct. 2 and Oct. 3
Tickets are $12 for the general public and $6 for students or seniors.
In 1998, the young gay man and University of Wyoming student was tortured and murdered by two men he met at a bar. The incident stirred international outrage against hate crimes and resulted in a documentary that evolved into a play.
This weekend and next at Stephens College, Schlesinger portrays multiple characters in “The Laramie Project,” based on Shepard's story.
Soon after Shepard's death, a theater group went to Laramie, Wyo., and performed more than 200 interviews with locals in the area about the murder’s effect on the town. "The Laramie Project" is intended to be the town's collective response to the crime.
“It’s a really important play for college campuses, because it talks about acceptance and community and what truth means to different people,” said Dan Schultz, the play's director and teacher at Stephens. .
When auditions came around, Schultz said it was obvious Schlesinger was passionate about the piece, but her connection to theater took time to develop.
Two years ago, she would not have imagined a possible career in drama. She considered herself a jock, participating in basketball, volleyball and swimming.
It was not until her freshman year in high school in Indiana that a friend talked her into auditioning for “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Most of her experience in high school then involved musicals. However, after a Shakespearean acting class, she began to rethink her future.
It’s not that she wasn’t familiar with theater; she grew up in the business. Her mother was an actress, which is why Schlesinger finds “The Laramie Project” such a personal piece.
“When I was younger…a lot of her best friends were gay men in the theater, and they took care of me and were my support system,” Schlesinger said.
She later continued, “The way that I was raised, and the way that I’ve lived my life is just in a very nonjudgmental way. I don’t like judging people.”
For Schlesinger, one of the first lines in the play — “Hate is not a Laramie value” — shows the piece’s true intentions. The characters have not been reduced to stereotypes.
The performance focuses on all perspectives, including antigay protesters and those who aren’t sure what they think. Many of them are simply struggling to come to terms with a tragic event that will forever be associated with their town.
“These people are real people,” Schlesinger said.
Schultz echoed the point.
“The last thing we want to do with this play is judge anybody...There are people that are fine with that lifestyle and people that oppose that lifestyle, and this play does a good job of portraying both points of view,” he said.
Whether theatergoers will be stirred is yet to be determined, but Schlesinger said she hopes people will leave with more tolerance.
“I hope that people can learn to put their differences aside and do what they love, and just live their lives together as a community,” she said.