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Arts Eclectic turns the spotlight on happenings in the arts and culture scene in and around the Austin area. Through interviews with local musicians, dancers, singers, and artists, Arts Eclectic aims to bring locals to the forefront and highlight community cultural events.Support for Arts Eclectic comes from Broadway Bank and Rock n Roll Rentals.

'It is so crucial to tell this story': Deaf Austin Theatre presents 'The Laramie Project'

Deaf Austin Theatre's 'The Laramie Project'
Tate Tullier Photography
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Deaf Austin Theatre
Cast members from Deaf Austin Theatre's ASL production of 'The Laramie Project'

A transcript of KUT's on-air audio feature appears below this article.

This September,Deaf Austin Theatre is presenting a new production of Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project. The groundbreaking play, a work of verbatim theatre based on the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, has been produced countess times since its publication in 2000, but until now there’s never been a professional production in American Sign Language.

“The lovely Dr. Brian Cheslik [artistic director of Deaf Austin Theatre] selected the project,” says director Jules Dameron. ”And he came to me and my business partner at that time and pitched the idea of creating The Laramie Project professionally in ASL. And it was such an easy decision to say yes to this because it is so crucial to tell this story and the deaf community needs this story and this information. When we started talking about this about two years ago, at that time, I don't think we were really talking about the issues that were happening in society that are becoming more prevalent. And now the play is even more relevant than ever because of the abuse and erasure and harassment of the queer community, particularly in the South.”

Kailyn Aaron-Lozano, the director of artistic sign language for this production of The Laramie Project, says the play’s message is an important one to share right now, especially with the deaf community. “The problem is, in society, the deaf community is often behind on information… due to language access or lack thereof” she says. “So The Laramie Project was published in 1998 and at that time, the hearing community was really aware of what was going on. At that time, I was nine years old and I sort of knew a little bit of what was going on, but it wasn't until I was involved in this play 23 years later that I really learned the situation and I learned what happened."

Actor James Caverly, who echoes Aaron-Lozano’s feelings, was also a child when Matthew Shepard was murdered. “I was nine years old when the Matthew Shepard story broke,” Cavely says. “And at that time, I was still learning to understand more about what was happening and understand more about the stigma behind being gay or being in the LGBTQ community. At that time, it was a learning process. And what happened in Laramie really was the driving force behind many anti hate crime bills. What is unique about this [production is that] even though it has been produced across many states, many countries and many different languages, this is the first professional production in ASL, which I think is so useful and vital. I think it's a vital piece of history that is worth sharing and worth reminding people of why we do this, why this story must continue to be told over and over again, especially now with the increase in hate crimes against the queer community. It's particularly relevant right now.”

The Laramie Project is an ensemble play, with many actors playing multiple roles in the documentary-style presentation. For Caverly and fellow actor Dickie Hearts, that means playing some characters that they fundamentally disagree with. “I do play many different characters and some characters that I really struggle with,” Hearts says. “I have a character who's incredibly homophobic, really hateful. And that's not me, obviously, because I'm in real life, I'm very gay. And I have to really… let go of the hateful rhetoric and get into the mindset of this is wrong and disgusting and ugly. I have to get into that head space in order to portray that character. And that is still an ongoing journey as an actor.”

“I do play several characters who say a lot of things that I personally disagree with,” Caverly says. “As an actor, I've learned to put myself on a shelf and put this character on as a person. And these people are real people who are alive today. And there are many people who are alive today who have that level of understanding or misunderstanding. And I need to portray that as accurately as I can.”

Dameron has some hopes for what the audience will take away after seeing this production of The Laramie Project. “I really want the audience to understand how important it is to have honest and open dialogues – conversations about everything, particularly related to queerness, to that leads to understanding,” he says. “The whole goal is – and I feel like it applies to all things --people don't understand so much. And honestly, so many problems [start] with the people who don't learn about the other side of how people live lives. If it doesn't apply to them, they don't learn about it. And this story does talk about that. The town of Laramie has a mindset called ‘live and let live.’ And I see that ‘live and let live’ attitude as a philosophy that is harmful to exposure or understanding of any group of people that is not the same as yours and is not in a privileged position. And that philosophy is very passive and very, oh, well, that situation doesn't apply to me. Therefore, I'm not going to learn about it. It’s very wrong in today's society in my opinion. And I feel like, in trying to make this play, I encourage the audience to realize we need to talk about the hard things. we need to have the conversations and learn about each other. If someone is different from me, it doesn't matter. I need to learn about them.”

“Access is key here,” Aaron-Lozano adds. ‘Because, again – how can a community understand others? If they don't have the ability to communicate and understand what's happening around them, they need to understand themselves and other people through access and communication. So my hope is that deaf and hearing audiences both – coming in person and watching our livestream – I'm hoping their takeaway is understanding how much our words, whether in sign or spoken, or captioned… there's no way to miss the message that we're providing, we're providing access on three different levels. So if you missed it, I mean, we gotta figure out why. Because the point of this show is access. And the takeaway that I'd love for them to have is that this message needs to be shared to your home, to your friends, to anyone that you think might not understand or might not know. And we need to create that positive impact and become allies to each other.”

Hearts adds one other hoped-for takeaway for audience members. “I would love the audience to take away the fact that deaf people can act,” he says. “I mean, as a professional actor who's been in this industry for at least 11 or 12 years now, there's not a lot of work for deaf actors. And this industry – TV, film and the stage, to be frank – are very ableist. So that's why I keep emphasizing again that I'm so grateful to be here because this cast is all so incredibly talented and incredibly diverse. A group of deaf actors from all walks of life who have all flown in here. We have deaf, hard of hearing, deaf/blind. We have a deaf trans director. And I want audiences to walk away thinking, wow, deaf people did this!”

'The Laramie Project' runs through September 16 at Ground Floor Theatre, with streaming options available as well.

Transcript of KUT's on-air feature:

Michael Lee, host: This is Arts Eclectic, spotlighting arts in Austin. I'm Michael Lee.

Jules Dameron, director: If someone is different from me, it doesn't matter. I need to learn about them. That's what I'm hoping that the audience, what their take away is from this show.

Michael Lee, host: This month, Deaf Austin Theatre is presenting the first professional American Sign Language version of Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project, the groundbreaking play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. With help from interpreter Miriam Rochford, I spoke with director Jules Dameron, director of artistic sign language Kailyn Aaron-Lozano, and actors James Caverly and Dickie Hearts.

Jules Dameron, director: This is Jules. It is so crucial to tell this story, and the deaf community needs this story and this information. Now, the play is even more relevant than ever because of the abuse and erasure and harassment of the queer community, particularly in the South.

James Caverly, actor: This is James Caverly. This is the first professional production in ASL, which I think is so useful and vital. It's a vital piece of history that is worth sharing and worth reminding people of why we do this, why this story must continue to be told especially now.

Kailyn Aaron-Lozano, director of artistic sign language: And this is Kailyn. This message needs to be shared to your home, to your friends, to anyone that you think might not understand or might not know. And we need to create that positive impact and become allies to each other. We need to spearhead these conversations that people feel are uncomfortable.

Dickie Hearts, actor: This is Dickie. Other than the message of the play, which I think is important, I would love the audience to take away the fact that deaf people can act. I want audiences to walk away thinking, ‘wow, deaf people did this!’'

Michael Lee, host: The Laramie Project, from Deaf Austin Theatre, runs through September 16th at Ground Floor Theatre. For more information, visit our website, kut.org. For Arts Eclectic on KUT, I'm Michael Lee.

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for KUT.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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