Trying to stage "The Laramie Project," a documentary play about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, turned into a saga of its own for the drama students of Burbank's John Burroughs High School when their principal banned the production and they went ahead with it anyway in an off-campus venue.
Nicole Carothers, a Burroughs senior, says she proposed the show last fall as a joint effort of the drama class and the school's Gay Straight Alliance. But after winter break, she learned that Principal Emilio Urioste Jr., finishing his ninth year as principal at the 2,600-student campus, had prohibited the play. Drama teacher Scott Bailey says the reason Urioste gave him in January was that it "would tear this community apart," a claim Urioste denies.
"I watched my dream fly out the door," Carothers said last week. "I couldn't believe what was happening."
Taking matters into their own hands, the students pushed ahead, securing the Colony Theatre, where the show will play Thursday and Friday, attracting unexpected high-profile support and, eventually, the blessing of the principal for what remains an independent production not sanctioned by the school.
Carothers and her fellow students began to see a way to realize their dream in late March when they learned they had won a $500 California Teachers Assn. grant for "The Laramie Project." The Gay Straight Alliance had applied for the funding last fall, anticipating it would be all right to do the play at school. Now they had the wherewithal to try to rent an off-campus Burbank venue. They approached the Colony, not knowing the company had staged an acclaimed production of "The Laramie Project" in 2002 -- the play's Los Angeles premiere. Managing Director Trent Steelman said the Colony is providing its 276-seat theater rent-free, along with costumes, props, programs and help with sound and lighting.
The students, who rehearsed the play on Carothers' back patio, dubbed themselves the Don't Tell Bailey Theatre Company in honor of their drama teacher -- who could not be involved because it wasn't school-sanctioned -- and started to advertise the play via e-mail and a MySpace site. Last week, that brought an unexpected bonus: Leigh Fondakowski and Kelli Simpkins, two of the creators of "The Laramie Project" as members of the Tectonic Theater Project, decided to join the 23 cast members for three days of rehearsals this week, flying in from New York City and Chicago.
Greg Reiner, managing director of the Actors' Gang in Culver City, had heard about the students' initiative and put them in touch with Tectonic, where he has consulted on education projects. Soon, Fondakowski and Simpkins were booking their trip to Burbank, with expenses covered by a $150,000 Arcus Foundation grant that Tectonic landed this year to work with high schools and colleges staging "The Laramie Project."
"I heard they were rehearsing in somebody's backyard, and I said, 'I've got to go out there,' " said Fondakowski. "We're going to be at their disposal."
Like other theater professionals who heard about the show, Fondakowski, Simpkins and Tectonic's artistic director and playwright, Moises Kaufman, said they were shocked and miffed it had been banned in Burbank. "How doing a play about tolerance can tear a community apart is beyond me," Kaufman said.
The New York-based company crafted "The Laramie Project," which premiered at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 2000, from scores of interviews with Wyoming residents about the killing of University of Wyoming student Shepard, who was beaten, hung on a fence and left to die, in their community in 1998.
Since Tectonic's original staging (followed in 2002 by the HBO film), more than 2,000 other productions have followed. More than 500 of those have been at high schools, Kaufman said. Several high school productions, in cities such as Yakima, Wash., and Surrey, British Columbia, have been banned, according to published reports. A high school in Kalamazoo, Mich., staged the play without incident in February, despite a threatened protest by a group led by Fred Phelps, a virulently anti-gay pastor from Kansas.
Carothers said that she and co-directors Jenna Tamimi, Madison DiNapoli and Amanda Stone hope their show will drive home the consequences of intolerance -- and that Burbank is not immune. They are dedicating it to Lawrence King, the openly gay eighth-grader who was gunned down in his Oxnard school on Feb. 12, allegedly by a 14-year-old classmate.
After so many unexpected kindnesses from strangers, Stone said, the pressure is mounting on the theater kids of Burroughs High. "At this point we're, like, 'We'd better be good, because so many people are relying on us to be good.' "
Among the supporters now is their principal, who about a month ago told the students they could rehearse at school -- and who now says he'd like to see a school production of "The Laramie Project" next year. Urioste says seeing their commitment led to his change of heart. The students note that Urioste appears to have gotten a nudge from Stephen Jimenez, who administers a Los Angeles Unified School District program addressing the problems of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Jimenez wouldn't discuss his conversations with Urioste; the principal said they had "a very good dialogue" that helped him see the matter differently.
"You have that moment when you say, 'These are great kids and they're very passionate about this, and I need to support them,' " Urioste said. He denied having told Bailey, the drama teacher, that doing the show could "tear this community apart."
In fact, the principal said, he never had a problem with the play itself, having seen the film of "The Laramie Project" on television before it was proposed as a school play. He considers it "a compelling, thought-provoking, very deep piece."
"There's more to this than I can get into," the principal said, when asked why he would ban a play he had no objection to. He noted that he and Bailey have disagreed over the direction of Burroughs' drama program -- Urioste hoping for big musicals that can merge talents from the drama, music and dance departments, while Bailey has stuck to his preference for more intimate and adventurous plays. Urioste recently took away Bailey's drama assignment for next year, although Bailey will remain on the faculty teaching English. Bailey says he's challenging the decision with a union grievance.
Urioste said he's happy, in the end, that the students stood up for their convictions and that the show will go on.
"If it means I eat some crow, I eat some crow."