“The Laramie Project,” a play that takes on controversial topics and challenges its audiences, is the latest offering of the River Ridge High School theater program.

“It deals with the topics of tolerance, bullying, social violence, homosexuality, AIDS and HIV. It is quite a multilayered play, so anytime you bring that to life, I have always been of the idea that theater should reflect life and the times. It should be a commentary on human experiences and this is a real human experience,” said Rob Fields, River Ridge High School theater director.

The play opens Thursday, with performances Friday, Saturday and Monday at 7 p.m. in the River Ridge High School theater at 400 Arnold Mill Road in Woodstock.

Fields said the play helps bring issues facing society to light.

“As much as I love the stories that are made up and created with pure fictitious characters, I was very drawn to this one because it does shed quite a bit of light on the various topics,” he said.

“The Laramie Project” is a play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the reaction to the 1998 murder of Mathtew Shepard, a gay statudent at University of Wyoming.

“The story comes about from the abduction, beating and murder of Shephard, who was a 21-year-old college student in Laramie, Wyoming.

The story is really controversial because of how many social issues are brought up in it,” Fields said. “Ironically, Wednesday (today) will be the 18-year anniversary of the actual death. Eighteen years and five days ago would have been the day they took him out, beat him and tied him up and left him there.”

Five weeks after the murder, Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie, and over the course of the next year, conducted more than 200 interviews with people of the town. From these interviews, they wrote the play, a chronicle of the life in Laramie in the year after the murder.

“We came to this one because it offered us a lot of opportunity to tell a story that is not that well known or has been forgotten, because it has almost been two decades. None of the kids on stage portraying this were alive or they were weeks old so they would not have remembered it,” Fields said. “It is a neat concept for the design of the show because the entire thing is based off of the interviews the Techtonic Theater Project did … the play is a composite of all of those interviews. You see everything from the elements of the trials, the people talking about the trial and you meet about 70 characters in the story.”

The play has educational and historical relevance for the students in the performance, as well as the audience.

“At the end of the play, the kids in the program have not only had a great theatrical experience and have hopefully learned some good theater technique, but have also had to think, feel and learn. I want them to have opinions and want them to feel like they can express those opinions whether they agree with me or disagree,” Fields said.

Fields hopes the play starts a conversation in the community.

“What I really love about it is that this play doesn’t tell you what to think about anything…if we can get people to leave the show and go have a discussion with someone else that saw it, then we have done part of our job. We want to entertain them while they are here, but we also want to affect them so they grow and learn from it,” he said.

The River Ridge theater department has received four consecutive Gold Level Honor Thespian awards from the Georgia Thespian Association. They are the only school in the county to achieve this status, with Cherokee High School awarded once.

“We have been honored. What that award recognizes is our theater’s commitment to doing a lot of productions, community outreach and club involvement. We bring in a lot of speakers for the kids, we go on a lot of field trips and we do a lot of activities; we are a very active club,” Fields said. “I want the kids to understand that there is a great honor in volunteering and selflessly going out there. Theatre is a place where kids get into it because they want that spotlight on them …it is important to take a step back and realize it is not all about us. That has been really great to separate us from the majority of theater groups in Georgia.”

Members of the theater department are active in the community by donating their time to various Krogers collecting money for the Salvation Army and making handmade wreaths to benefit Children’s Cancer Research. They also go to other high schools, Reinhardt University, Kennesaw State University, the Fox Theatre and New York to watch other plays.

“The commitment per show is roughly 100 hours start to finish. By the end of the year we will have kids dedicating 300 hours. We have one student, for example, that will have completed 1,500 hours at River Ridge because she has also been an officer in the club,” Fields said. “Most of the kids in the program, they are excelling in academics and after school activities. They bring an element of positivity and giving to the school and society.”

Fields said performing in a variety of plays, such as “The Laramie Project,” helps the students excel in life.

“Not only can these kids get up and do what is rated one of the largest phobias in America, speaking in front of groups, but they do it multiple nights in a row and come back for more. I am super proud of them for wanting to be a part of this,” Fields said. “These are goal oriented kids, which is a feature that will carry them through life.”

Tickets are $10 and available buy one, get one free.

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