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Students and Staff Took on 'The Laramie Project' at MRH High School in St. Louis

From left to right: Natalie Mitten, Presten Pinnell, Bryant Rohlfing, Emma Bright, Nelson Ricks, Morgan Patterson-Gill, Robert Burse.  ©Photo by Michelle PG Richardson

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Each school year, the Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School Drama Department takes on two plays, one in the fall and one in the spring.  This year's fall play was "The Laramie Project" based on the events surrounding the gruesome murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student in Laramie, Wyoming.  With full support from MRH Superintendent Karen Hall, and under the direction of MRH's Theatre Director Holly Potthoff, both MRH staff and students pushed the envelope and  took on this documentary play in support of diversity in their community. Due to subject matter, it is a play that is meant for mature audiences.  It is also subject to protests. (Click on this link for the full article on the MRH counter protest.)

The MRH drama department has always met, and at times exceeded, my expectations in the past with each set and performance, but I have to say, this one had me amazed, and not just because of the play choice.  The acting from both staff and students was overall fabulous  (vocally and physically), in a way that you don't find in your average high school theatrical performances.  But there was something extra going on that really impressed me. The actors and actresses in this play performed anywhere from two to seven different characters.  So well in fact, that unless you were really paying attention or knew the actors and actresses on a day to day basis, you probably wouldn't have noticed; and that's what made it superb.  You would have simply thought that their characters were played by different actors and actresses altogether.  

What brought the play together was the set.  It was a tall criss-cross slat fence of sorts which spanned the stage in movable sections that could open and close.  It represented the fence on which Shepard was found and worked beautifully in setting the simple and honest tone of the play. Behind it was a second floor platform (you can sort of see it used in the photo below).  Ramps and platforms made up the foreground where several scenes and characters could be watched at any given moment. 

From left to right: Joseph Hosea, Morgan Patterson Gill, Lauren Fleischer.  ©Photo by Michelle PG Richardson

In regards to the lighting, where the backdrop was concerned, it was perfect in its ambiance.  Really mesmerizing.  When it came to the lights "working" for the actors, that is the one place I would say this play was lacking some.  I found myself wishing if only an actor or actress would move his or her face this way or tilt their head that way so that I could see their expressions better (not because of where I was sitting).   But in defense of the lighting crew, some of the character lighting was truly spot on, and when you could really see the expressions on the actors and actresses faces, wow. 

The unique and constant variance and technical savvy needed for what they were attempting to do in terms of lighting was one that would have best been handled by a very experienced professional crew (and if that were to have happened, it would have defeated the purpose of a school play).  And so I really commend those behind the lights for even attempting such a major feat because the lighting in this play was no easy task to say the least.

Joseph Hosea ©Photo by Michelle PG Richardson

Call it naivete, but I really didn't expect that the actors and actresses that were part of the MRH staff would do quite as well as they did.  I suppose I never thought of teachers as being incredible actors.  They really had talent, in a big way, and I want to see more plays that meld student and staff in their performances. 

Some of the faces I was excited to see, were familiar to me from last year's plays, like Morgan Patterson-Gill, Natalie Mitten, and Maggie Edmondson. 

But there were some new faces that I can't wait to see more of: sophomore, slam poet, and Jazz musician Preston Pinnell (aka PP), and freshman soccer player Ben Speed.  They have the look, they have the skills to transform into any character role they care to, and they have that unique kind of stage presence you expect to see in a performance. 

Preston Pinnel.  ©Photo by Michelle PG Richardson

From left to right: Jahbarie Jefferson and Ben Speed.  ©Photo by Michelle PG Richardson

Through arts of all kinds, plays included, we are able to express ourselves in a variety of ways.  An artist's voice takes shape in what they do, where they do it, how they do it. Artists are able to create a platform in which we, the lookers, get to see bits of the world in a way we may never have seen it before, right there in front of us.  It can bring to life questions we never thought to ask.  It can bring us face to face with our hopes, our fears.  And in the case of the documentary play, The Laramie Project, it can bring together all of the above and more.  It allows us to witness the best and the worse in people, providing no answers at all.  A cacophony and concordance of what was, and of what still is, for us to learn from, to question, to think about.

So what's on for next spring?  The MRH Drama Department will be presenting us all with "The One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".  Yay!