When John Muszynski auditioned students for Maine South High School's play, running Oct. 18, 19 and 20, he gave them an application that asked whether they would be willing to play an openly gay character, a bigoted character or a murderer.
Most of the students checked "yes" to all the questions, which Muszynski, a Maine South theater teacher and the play's director, attributes to their open-mindedness, gutsiness and willingess to explore topics in society.
Below is a Q and A interview with Muszynski about the play, a followup to the much-produced "The Laramie Project," which recounts the 1998 murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard and the reactions of some citizens of Laramie, Wyo.
In "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later," the playwright, Moises Kaufman, revisited Laramie and found that a 2004 TV documentary which attributed Matthew Shepard's murder to meth use and a drug deal gone bad, instead of the hate crime it was originally determined to be, had fueled denial among some people in the town. While lessons learned on tolerance had stuck with some, they faded for many.
Patch: How did students react to the idea of a play which contains themes of gay rights, tolerance, a hate crime and denial?
John Muszynski: I thought our students, especially theater students, were extremely open to the conversation and not afraid to venture into the subject matter. They felt strongly about tolerance and understanding, and the play actually goes way beyond just the issues of tolerance and understanding.
It’s about how we as human beings, 10 years after the incident, find ways to justify and bury any guilt we might feel, or any emotion, through a number of psychological avenues, one of which is the 20/20 report six years after the original incident, in which they found somebody in a bar who made the statement that it was a drug deal gone bad and 20/20 ran with that.
The play looked at how that influenced people—it kind of justified for some, as in 'oh so we don’t have to be known as a bigoted town.'
People latch onto a number of different reasonings to justify our thoughts and emotions. The show really explores that, as well as how awareness of that incident moved the gay rights agenda ahead, or didn’t, in that state. In some way it did and some it didn’t.
It’s a very realistic portrayal of what we as human beings do to cope. That's what's really fascinating about the piece.
What did the students say about gay rights and tolerance?
Muszynski: I was surprised they were very open to it. I think it’s a statement of our changing times, and I think television and film have changed the cultures of youth and tolerance.
How did you and they approach playing these characters?
Muszynski: I don’t necessarily think we are all that different from the people of Laramie, Wyoming.
We made it a real point to play the characters genuinely; we don’t overplay them or play them with an edge. We went with, 'what was this person thinking and feeling,' rather than a character. It was a really interesting exercise in performance and I think it rings in truth because of that.
I’ve always said the theater is and always has been capturing the social questions and issues of a given time, whether Shakespeare or Moliere, or this play: taking something of consequence socially and using the art of theater to explore it.
I think the play leaves people with more questions and thoughts rather than answering everything. It should spur a great dicussion when they go out for ice cream or pie.
Are other teachers asking students who are not in the play to see it?
Muszynski: They are. We have a program we call Hawk Pride, about once a month. A lesson might be on volunteerism or things of that sort. So yesterday I was involved with the Hawk Pride team, on tolerance. The basis of that was Matthew Shepard. So every single student is, in a way, now tied to Matthew Shepherd. It seems to be real to them. If it was just a lesson on tolerance, it doesn’t have any meaning to them necessarily. But this seemed to connect with them. We have a very supportive faculty here.
And the Park Ridge and Niles community?
Muszynski: There were a number of groups in town that were interested, too. I was asked to speak at Park Ridge Community Church. They’re having a series about tolerance, and they’re having a couple sessions about this play and they’re coming to see it Friday night.
Especially in a community like Park Ridge where the arts are respected, more than at some other high schools, the community looks forward to theater arts. The community shows up for our productions—I think we’re very fortunate.
Is the play appropriate for younger kids?
Muszykski: There’s nothing offensive in it, but it’s a talky play. It would definitely be accessible for junior high students.
If you go:
- Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18-20, 7:30 p.m.
- Maine South High School auditorium, 1111 S. Dee Road, Park Ridge
- All tickets $6, for purchase at the box office.
Cast and crew:
Lauri McCleneghan is the play's costumer and Patrick Sanchez is technical director. Cast members include Giuliana Bartucci, Jeff Czerwionka, Lily Elderkin, Sarah Householder, Elijah Irizarry, Tim Kwasny, Alyssa LaTragna, Bryan Lubash, Drew Mathieu, Elizabeth McCarthy, Elena Sasso, Tess Tazioli, Sarah Thomas, Justin Tomczyk, Zach Wendorf and Ben Wilson. Narrators are Anna Bauer and Katrina Iorio. Assistant Director is Molly Butler and the Stage Manager is Carri Stevens.