Young actors in Saskatoon are tackling some heavy material, and they are doing so on the city’s most prominent main stage. The Kinsmen Young Company has chosen the controversial play, The Laramie Project, to perform for its 2012-2013 season at the Persephone Theatre. Will Brooks says it’s a challenge that the actors in the company are ready to face.
“We designed this program for those students who were at a certain level and really wanted to take their acting somewhere,” said Brooks, who is the youth director at Persephone Theatre. “They apply in September, we do a bunch of auditions in November and then we start at the end of the year. It’s very competitive and they’re a very talented group of young people.”
The Laramie Project is a play by Moises Kaufman that revolves around the reactions to the 1998 murder of a gay University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. It includes more than 90 characters, which will all be played by the nine actors in the Kinsmen Youth Company. The ensemble includes: Chris Holtcamp, Michelle Giesbrecht, Alysha Forester, Dalton Lightfoot, Ben Thomas, Jordan Jasper Williams, Jake Stebner, Katee Polischuk and Sammy Ramsey.
“I was a little worried at first about whether the students would be iffy about the subject, or whether they would be comfortable playing gay or homophobic characters,” said Brooks. “That all became a non-issue pretty fast. These kids are living in the same world we are. In many ways, it’s probably easier for them to tackle subject matter like this than it would be for an adult company.
“It’s a great experience for them and a great exercise for them to be able to try to understand these people. You can’t play a character you hate, so you have to spend some time thinking about that person, who they are and how did they arrive at their opinion.”
It has been a welcome challenge learning how to play several different characters, according to the actors in the young company.
“I have 13 or 14 different characters that I play,” said Michelle Giesbrecht. “I was actually really excited when I found out that we would get to play multiple characters because it’s something I have always wanted to try. You have to change your voice and your physicality along with your costume.”
With such a highly debated issue, students have to play highly contrasting roles in the three-act play. Eighteen-year-old Jake Stebner, who has been with the Kinsmen Youth Company since its inception, plays Shepard’s killer.
“Honestly, as an actor it’s exciting to find out that one of my roles was the killer. It’s a challenge,” said Stebner. “Along with the killer, I play university students, a doctor, a preacher and more. At one point the scene I do is the interrogation; it’s a heavy, intense scene. Having to remove yourself from that character and switch into other roles can be exhausting.”
Though the topic seems dark, Brooks says the production is actually one of hope, and that seeing it performed by younger actors gives it a unique twist not offered anywhere else. “It’s pretty heartfelt sometimes. There’s a lot of humanity; there’s a lot of hope in it. I wouldn’t call it a dark play. It’s dealing with a very sad event and what happened around it, but when you get down to it, the play is about hope in the face of hate. There’s something that really tugs at your heartstrings,” said Brooks. “If you’re sitting and watching an adult company do it, there’s this very powerful monologue of the man who had to announce Matthew Shepard’s death on national TV. And if you’re watching an adult say something like, ‘Go home and hug your kids in case they’re not there tomorrow,’ that’s one thing. But when you see a 16-year-old do it, it’s a whole new experience.”
The three-act play lasts about one hour, 45 minutes. It will break boundaries, according to Giesbrecht and Stebner.
“It depends on beliefs and background and that sort of thing. I know when I first auditioned I read through the play and was like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to bring my grandma to this.’ But I decided to do it, because how could you pass up acting in Persephone on the main stage. You just don’t do that,” said Giesbrecht. “You have to be careful not to let yourself go when being these characters because it’s such an emotional piece. And so at one point, during rehearsals, one of our co-actors ended up crying during this intense monologue. And he’s crying and we’re all sitting there trying to hold it together.
“Nobody is going to be saying, ‘You’re so gay’ after watching this,” added Stebner. “People will walk out, and they’re going to have a lot to think about it. It’s an experience you won’t find anywhere else with some fresh faces.”
The Laramie Project runs from May 16-18, there are three evening performances at 8 p.m. and one student matinee. To purchase tickets, go to www.persephonetheatre.org or call the box office at 306-384-7727. Tickets can also be purchased in person at the theatre.