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Thursday, Oct. 9, 2003 02:20 pm

A community comes to terms with itself

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Parkland College’s production of The Laramie Project features a cast of dozens

Randi Collins-Hard is directing The Laramie Project at Parkland College in Champaign, currently running through Oct. 12. The Laramie Project has been the most-produced play in the United States the past couple of years. Springfield saw a production here in 2002. What makes the Parkland production unforgettable is the fact that Collins-Hard has cast 73 actors instead of the usual eight.

The Laramie Project is comprised of interviews with the townspeople of Laramie, Wyo. after the 1988 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. A group of actors making up the Tectonic Theatre Project from New York made several trips to Laramie to interview people from the town about the murder. From these interview tapes and transcripts, a play was created; each line of dialogue was taken from the mouths of these townspeople. It's a unique experience sitting through this play, and the realization hits that of course it's more than a play, it's a kind of communal thing, thus making Collins-Hard's production quite an event in itself. Her production is made up of community people, faculty and students from both the University of Illinois and Parkland.

Before a run-through rehearsal of the play the week before the show opened, Collins-Hard received a phone call from the playwright of The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman (he shares the writing credit the actors who also conducted the interviews in Laramie). Kaufman was actually in Champaign doing research at the U. of I. and had read about the play in the local newspaper.

"He was unable to get to the rehearsal but came by later and spent an hour and a half talking to the cast," she said. "He was very excited about the play being done this way since it had up to this point only been staged with the minimal cast, so he was enthralled about the possibilities."

The giant cast sits all around the stage during the entire performance, adding another dimension to the performance. There is also a live TV-camera-hookup onstage, so we see parts of the play on a big-screen as well. The entire production envelops the audience, bringing them into the action.

Kaufman took questions from the cast and he asked the actors which characters they were playing. Then he would tell each of them stories about their characters, stories that didn't make it to the finished version of the original play (which was also made into an HBO movie last year). He then updated the actors on the lives of these characters since the play was produced.

"He said something very interesting about what this production does," says Collins-Hard. "He said the original play is about eight actors trying to understand a community, but now it's about a community of people trying to understand themselves."

The play continues running Oct. 9-11 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 3 p.m. (call 217-351-2528 for tickets).

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