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Sudbury stages the play Surrey shunned Add to ...

When Line Roberge first heard that a board in Surrey, B.C., had shut down production of The Laramie Project over concerns the play's content was not suitable for a high-school audience, her reaction was one of dismay.

"I was aware of the power of this play," said Ms. Roberge, a high-school drama teacher. "I'd seen what it had come to symbolize to our kids and to parents who'd come to see it. The response to the play's message has been profound. The overall reaction to it here has been phenomenal."

Here is Sudbury Secondary School. Yes, Sudbury, the hard-hat Ontario mining town that even lifelong residents like Line Roberge admit glows with a redneck reputation. It's certainly not the first place you'd look to find the kind of progressive-minded school board it takes to stage a play that at first blush is easy to turn down.

As they did in Surrey recently.

For those just joining us, The Laramie Project is a play based on the real-life beating death of Matthew Shepard. Mr. Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming. He was also gay.

On Oct. 7, 1998, Mr. Shepard was lured from a bar in Laramie, Wyo., by two men who would later punch and kick him senseless because of his sexual orientation. He died five days later. The incident sparked outrage across America and renewed hostilities in the country's ugly war between anti-gay activists and gay-rights supporters.

Last month, a drama teacher at Surrey's Elgin Park Secondary began plans to stage The Laramie Project as the school's main fall production. Once the school principal had a look at the script, however, alarms went off. He bumped the matter up to the board to consider. Its decision was quick and firm: no way. The reason? The play's graphic language, as well as its mature subject matter, was inappropriate for younger students.

Gay-rights groups cried censorship and homophobia. Matthew Shepard's mother, Judy, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that the decision was unfortunate. She said some of the play's harsher language had been modified elsewhere for younger audiences. Rocked by the reaction, the Surrey board announced it was considering allowing a more muted version of the play to go ahead for viewing by senior students only.

The matter rests with a school-based committee, which includes parents, students and teacher representatives.

At Sudbury Secondary, meantime, Ms. Roberge got the idea of staging the play after one of her Grade 12 drama students performed its final monologue in class. In it, Denis Shepard speaks to one of his son's murderers in court. Her student's rendition of the scene compelled Ms. Roberge to read the entire play, and once she did, she knew instantly its message was too important to be ignored.

Even if its content made some uncomfortable.

The drama department performed a one-time-only - and unedited - version of the play last spring. While there were a few complaints about some of the language, the reaction overall was positive. When Ms. Roberge announced her intention to put on four performances this fall, school principal Leslie Mantle suggested some of the profanities be taken out to make it more palatable to a family audience.

So lines like: "Don't fuck with a Wyoming queer, cause they will kick you in your fucking ass," became "Don't mess with a Wyoming queer, cause they will kick you in your freakin' ass." The line: "He tried to grab my dick," became "He tried to grab my balls."

These were some of the lines that had scared the Surrey board away from the play.

"To me the story was more important than the profanity," Ms. Roberge said. "I think maybe the first time we did the play last spring, I was a little naive about it. But I understand that the board and the school have to look out for these things. I can tell you that we changed a few of the words and it had no impact on the message.

"It still came through loud and clear and really, really affected not only the audience but also the students who were part of the production."

Students like Paul Charbonneau.

"As a homosexual in our community," Mr. Charbonneau says on the program handed out at the play, " The Laramie Project has been the most influential and meaningful piece of literature and art that I have had the honour of taking part in . . . Thank you all for supporting this reality I live every day of my life."

Students like Candice Speirs, too.

" The Laramie Project is a statement against hate," Ms. Speirs adds in the program. "This play has taught me that high-school students can make a difference; that we do care and disagree with hate. The Laramie Project is bigger than us. And being a part of this has opened my eyes to hate."

Principal Mantle said the Rainbow School District has made the "development of character among our students" a priority. And The Laramie Project, controversial content aside, does just that, she said.

"Because it instills in our children important values such as acceptance," Ms. Mantle said. "It's not a play about being gay. It's about accepting people who are different and that's a message that needs to be heard in our high schools."

Ms. Roberge said there was no backlash whatsoever from the play's four-performance run, which concluded on Sunday. But there were lots of tears and cheers from the audience.

"I think we've demonstrated that you can put on a version of this play that doesn't offend everyone and still gets the point across," she said. "Parts of it are still not easy to watch but that's why its impact is so strong.

"At the end of the play we have a question-and-answer session with the audience and I start by asking: 'Could this be our town?' And people inevitably say, 'Of course it could be.' "

In fact, it could be just about any town in Canada. Including Surrey.


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