Collier & The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

Collier & The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
Posted on 07/09/2021
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Collier & The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

By Joseph Sullivan

 

There is something about numbers ending in a five or zero which almost always seem to bring out the significance in anyone or anything you can imagine. For a couple of Collier High School alumni and a former teacher, that came out in our 2020 online production of The Tectonic Theatre’s The Laramie Project. Nearly ten years (give or take a few months) after Rachel Ames and I acted in The Laramie Project as a school production in 2010 under the direction of Brian Breen, we came back together to perform once again in the show. This time however we were working under different roles, with a completely different cast, in a format none of us would have imagined us performing in.

Brian Breen and I were both actors in multiple roles in the show. We also did some behind the scenes/technical work to help ease the burden on those who were primarily responsible for the technical aspects. Rachel not only acted but was the director and literal backbone and driving force behind making this all come together. Rachel as of this writing is working as a theatre teacher at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, which she got right after Laramie concluded. Before that she worked (and still does) her own performing arts teaching company Ames Performing Arts based out of Virginia. Rachel for years had dreamed of getting the Collier cast back together for a reunion show and what was probably the absolute last thing she could imagine would be the catalyst for making that dream a reality.

Being an actor or anyone in the performing arts industry is never an easy job for working actors, let alone starting at the end of March 2020 due to Covid where an entire industry was shut down to the point some had to make career changes in order to survive. But if there is one thing that I know Rachel to be, it’s that she’s persevering.  Covid hasn’t stopped her from continuing to do what she loves to do, teach theatre. Rachel didn’t have the money to attend a 4 year college, but did attend community college for a time. However due to her husband’s military career and having to move around the world to different posts, she was unable to finish her associates degree. She sadly didn’t have the same creational connection overseas on a military base. Between that and dealing with past trauma from abusive people who have been in her life, she really lost her sense of self. It all changed for the better when her husband (also an actor in TLP) bought her a piano. When that piano came into her life everything changed. She rediscovered her love of music and creating art overall, which led to her teaching some of the neighborhood kids, which got the word passed around and brought more kids her way, to the point where she created Ames Performing Arts. As of now she has approximately 50 total students between piano, voice, and theatre all done virtually. The figurative stage for TLP was now set.

Joseph Sullivan HeadshotWith the advent of Covid-19 ravening the world with increased demand for entertainment and coincidentally being the 10th anniversary of the original Collier High School production, it seemed like 2020 was the perfect year to make this dream a reality. Rachel initially set out to cast the show completely with Collier alumni who starred in the original 2010 production. Auditions for them were held virtually and Collier cast members were given first priority to read. Unfortunately for us most of the people who we worked with in 2010 had scheduling conflicts and would not be able to commit to the show. This would be the first in a number of different setbacks that we would encounter over the next couple of months. Plan B was casting as many people who had been in a production of TLP outside of Collier as well as some first timer’s, which with multi-part casting we were able to do. In 2010 I was cast as Stephen Belber, a newscaster, and Aaron Kreifels. In 2020 however I ended up being cast as Matt Galloway, an ‘anonymous’ person, and Shannon. As an actor this is actually considered better because it is an opportunity to explore and experience the story from a completely different perspective. It also forces you to work those acting chops instead of falling into something familiar. Over the coming months we would rehearse individual parts with only the actors in those parts. Once they were at a satisfactory level it would then move to multiple parts at once to whole acts until eventually rehearsals were full run through. This is common in live theatre rehearsals and our virtual performance would be no different. We had some issues with people either not understanding the commitment a theatrical production requires or did not prioritize us in their schedules. Any director or stage manager will tell you this can be the most frustrating thing there is, especially as opening day approaches ever closer.

When the big day finally came where our show would finally be performed live, we experienced an unexpected monumental problem. A whole act's worth of cues and transitions accidentally got deleted the morning of the show. To say we all were working overdrive to get some semblance of the lost cues and transitions back would be quite the understatement. Even then we ended up delaying the show time by about 30-45 minutes. But as the classic performing arts saying goes “The show must go on”, and on it went. We made it about halfway through act one until the entire site completely crashed and that was that. This was a problem because not only was the show that we all worked so hard on unable to proceed, but doing the show on another date was easier said than done. For those who aren’t familiar with how a production of a play works, you can’t just say “I want to put on a show” and put it on. Unless it is a completely original work written by someone who is involved with your theatre group, you need to obtain the rights from whatever company holds them. Usually when you get them there is only a set day or number of days that you can premier the show and once that day or those days have passed, you are no longer permitted to perform. We had a total of one day to do our performance (more days would have cost money which we did not have) and with the whole site down we wouldn’t be able to have a second go at it. But Rachel and her amazing perseverance fought through the frustration and managed to get an extension on our rights and therefore performance time. It was decided that after the debacle of the first run, that we would record each and every one of the scenes, put it together and premiere it as a prerecorded video on YouTube where we were able to keep it up for about two weeks. To throw one more wrench into our already pretty mangled machine, one actor was unable to commit any time to recording the scenes, so their roles were distributed between Breen and I. 

Rachel Headshot

Looking back at the whole experience, mishaps and setbacks are nothing new to a semi-experienced actor in any medium. This time however was a first time for not only us but an entire industry. It was taken for granted that we would be able to safely get together and perform in front of a live audience. But through this we learned a lot about the process of putting on an e-show and next time Rachel gets the Collier alumni together, we’ll be much better equipped and prepared.

The Laramie Project was so much more than Rachel’s favorite play; it was the right kind of play that was needed at that time. With Covid-19 putting a halt to many of the in-person activities and entertainment we took for granted pre-covid, something like an online performance of any play is what a lot of people needed. It gave the audience something to look forward to and the cast something to work towards. The Laramie Project is a play about hate and the ripples it sends through a community and people all around the planet. In light of the death of George Floyd and other deaths of black Americans under police custody, it brought a renewed sense of realism to the play.  For everyone in our production, it made us realize that as much as we would like to think that humanity has outgrown racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism, and overall hate; sadly that is not the case.

While TLP didn’t end up being the fully Collier production it was initially anticipated to be, the fact that at its core was run by Collier alumni makes it special nonetheless. This was also particularly special to Rachel because Brian Breen, the former Collier High School theatre teacher for both of us was also involved. Breen is the person who inspired Rachel to be the person she is today. For me he gave the socially awkward kid who could barely carry a conversation the base tools and the essential foundation I needed to fully realize my skills as an actor. When the casting process was still underway, Rachel actually asked Breen to direct the show, but he passed on that opportunity saying that it was Rachel’s turn to take the torch and command the show herself. Her time with Brian Breen gave her a sense of purpose and worth, which got her to realize that she wanted to teach, something that wasn’t fully recognized until our junior year. She says that every teacher had given her something which accumulated into the teacher and business owner she is today.  Brian Breen and Tom O’Brien were highlight teachers who really had the biggest influences on her. For me that would be Brian Breen, Patricia Whiteside, and John Bickart.

Collier alumni and the current generation of students are something unique. The students who go to school there have a past that most don’t understand, where we go there with the weight of the world on our shoulders. Collier helps us to create a drive, a drive to find to be more than we thought we could be going into it. It helps us all to get a better understanding of ourselves. That was the case for Rachel, it was the case for me and that is the case for many other Collier students before and after us. And for that, it truly is a special place.