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Guest Blog by Alyssa Sileo of The Laramie Project Project


Posted On January 31, 2018

Thanks to my arts education, I can say that, as an 18-year-old, I feel entirely equipped to address all that life can throw at meーwith excitement and curiosity.

It’s not only the “special skills” section of my résumé that is augmented by my theatre experience. Interpersonal communication and public speaking skills will never go without use, but something often unidentified that arts ed has helped me and every other student to develop is a strong set of values.

My internal inclinations toward choosing generosity and standing up for others is due to the multiple perspectives that theatre challenges me to consider, along with the historical accounts and cultural experiences that are celebrated within the arts. And since theatre and the arts take the concept of “hands-on” education to the next level, I recognize a specific, ongoing segment of my life that required me to:

1) become a breathing-encyclopedia of a docu-play,

2) build an international community from a Google account,

3) and get really good at writing email pitches.

It’s thanks to a theatre teacher and the compassion of other theatre teachers from around the world that I’ve discovered my own life purpose, and that I am working to help others find their own.

In the summer of 2016, it was announced that our Junior Class Production would be The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. This play uses found texts and interviews to chronicle the response of the 1998 hate crime against Matthew Shepard, a young advocate and gay University of Wyoming student. While this wasn’t the first hate crime ever, it was one of the first anti-gay acts of violence that caught worldwide attention and started a wave of fighting for hate crime legislation.

I was immediately struck by the incredible script and powerful story. As a theatre artist and an out LGBTQ+ teen, I know my performance of Laramie would be the ultimate synthesis of my earnest passion for equality. In the middle of a conversation with my drama teacher and director of the play, Ms. Kirstin Lynch-Walsh, at a Thespian troupe meeting, I expressed my want to create some kind of project in tandem with Laramie so I could maximize its impact on our school and greater community.

Her: “Well, I want to connect 49 Laramies to honor the 49 Pulse victims.”
Me: “…Okay. Wow. That’s it, I’m taking that.”

Since then, our The Laramie Project Project (or LPP) has grown into a theatre advocacy and education initiative that unites and catalyzes worldwide productions and readings of the play to honor victims of current hate crimes.

In the early days of the project: In between (and sometimes during) biology classes, amidst college research, and throughout intermission conversations, along with the support of upperclassmen and my drama teachers, I reached out to hundreds of high schools, theatres, and advocacy groups and encouraged them to set up events and spaces to bring Laramie to their communities. I scoured Facebook event pages for Laramies in the rehearsal process so I could ask them to add the LPP element of dedicating their production to someone we had lost to the horrific hate crime that was, at the time, the worst mass-shooting on American soil.

I watched the LPP go from a state project, to a regional project, to a national project, and, thanks to the power of social media, an international project. Production managers, directors, teachers, and passionate student leaders embraced our initiative and expanded our reach.

To date, we connect with 66 LPP events in 23 states and three other countries. High school Thespian Troupes and Gay-Straight Alliances, colleges, pro and amateur theatres, and community and religious groups have shared the story of Laramie with their hometowns, creating a loving tribute while making a statement that hate crimes can never be normalized, ignored, or tolerated. We began by honoring the Pulse victims, and since every name has since been honored in towns across miles and the seas, we have expanded to a larger list of people to memorialize, which makes for partnerships with the organizations Matthew Shepard Foundation and The Dru Project.

The LPP Family advocates for arts education by providing the opportunity for theatre programs to put up a unique event that challenges their students to act as artist-advocates. By bringing communities together and educating audiences, it becomes clear that arts spaces are essential to cultivating compassion and acceptance. Being a Production-Companion Project, we also encourage students to construct their own PCPs for their school’s season. It’s my belief that every piece of the theatre catalogue has an advocacy-initiative inside of it, and that students are the ultimate vessels of these.

We are actively working to make mounting an LPP event as accessible and cost-free as possible for programs that may lack funding. The play already serves as a low-maintenance and all-the-while effective theatre piece. The casting size is super flexible, and as for the technical elements, it requires a minimal set, since locations switch frequentlyー from moment-to-moment. (However, we are never ones to quickly leave out our student tech-artists, so it must be noted that a Laramie with extensive tech elements is remarkably compellingーlots of use of video and pictures and other media is commonly found.)

Being a member of International Thespian Society (sponsored by the Educational Theatre Association) has been an extreme source of guidance and assistance in broadening this project’s geography. Since I can identify myself along with 2,300,000 students and alumni and who share similar and different Thespian traditions, we have a wonderful and immediate common ground to build upon. Leaders of ITS and EdTA have also been committed to sharing our mission on their social media accounts.

There is a subset of the LPP Family that, time and time again, exude the care and kindness that keeps this project alive. It’s the theatre teachers, who, despite their busy schedules and theatrical seasons, commit to our initiative. Through their advocating of our LPP, I learn how to make it better. While attending Thespian Festivals and LPP events, I am constantly inspired by these figures. They are the anchors of these students, gifting them with an outlet for expression and chances to name their goals. I also enjoy those looking-glass moments when I meet the students who bring LPP to their schools, and promote us on social media better than I ever can. They’re the future theatre educators.

I have been granted unthinkable gifts thanks to the LPP, namely establishing and maintaining connections with the aforementioned organizationsーincluding contact with the actual Tectonic Theater Project, who have been such strong supporters of us! I’ve additionally been granted times of being surrounded, whether digitally or physically, by luminaries of every age and background. I think about how my definition of artist has been wildly revolutionized throughout every phase of this process, and happily await for the forthcoming moments of surprise. Theatre-makers must serve as the caretakers of equality; that’s something I know for sure.

The LPP is a joyful responsibility I will carry from high school to college and beyond, because my love for and trust in this play drives me to adding to its legacy.

Arts Ed NJ is the champion of the unreplaceable aspect of a student’s academic and personal development. Research, personal stories, and our own experiences persist to be proof that the arts in schools reap immeasurable benefits, all the while doing so in brilliant, lovely, unifying ways. I am a lifelong supporter of Arts Ed NJ because I know if not for a Thespian troupe to have a meeting for, and if not for a drama teacher to sponsor our troupe and and put on a production of Laramie, I am unsure if we would have reached the thousands of people that have (and will continue to) reach. I am unsure if we would have been able to honor the lives brutally stolen from the world. I am unsure if we would have been able to assure another LGBTQ+ student in an LPP event that they have a right to a safe and happy life.

Being a project without an identifiable financial process at the homebase, it’s every single platform that has ever shared our initiative with their audience or offered the smallest, kindest word, contribute to the fuel that keeps it running. So, all of my thanks to Arts Ed NJ, for not only what you have done to spread the message of our project, but also for what you do for students and the NJ community every day.

If you want to read more about the LPP, please check out our website, along with our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts. We are always accepting registration from any group (theatre or otherwise) along with any and all inquiries at this link and thelaramieprojectproject@gmail.com.