When CCHS Senior Nathan Palman decided to audition for “The Laramie Project” last September, he never dreamed that his first foray into theater would result in such a rewarding experience. “Acting in ‘The Laramie Project’ introduced me for the first time to the world of theater and all it has to offer,” he said, “including the entire process of staging a production and all of the hard work by so many individuals that goes into it.”
The California Educational Theatre Association (CETA) holds its annual High School Theatre Festival on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. Officially, the festival consists of performances by the winners from four regions, an afternoon of workshops, and a culminating awards ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Unofficially, it is a weekend of new friendships for theater students and teachers whose shared love of the art form brings them together from forty schools across Southern California.
Blurred Vision Theatre Company, from Culver City High School’s Academy of Visual and Performing Arts (AVPA), won first place regional honors for its fall production of ‘The Laramie Project,’ thereby earning the right to bring the production to the festival. Ms. Sheila Silver, AVPA Creative Director of Theatre, joined the faculty in 2009 and has brought her vision and skill to inspire and guide students to achieve the highest level of artistry for two straight years. Last year’s “Nicholas Nickleby” also won First Place regional honors and went on to win seven of nine festival awards, including the ultimate prize: Best Ensemble.
On Friday morning, after loading a rented truck with sets and production equipment, 48 theater students boarded a school bus and traveled to Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga. Friday night’s opening ceremony and the production by a regional winner was packed with energy. At 4:30am Saturday morning, the cast and crew of “The Laramie Project” boarded the bus at the hotel and traveled to the theater, where they spent the next five hours unloading the truck, assembling sets and lighting rigs, preparing costumes and stage make up, and warming up physically and mentally for the show. At 10am, the doors opened and students slowly filled the state-of-the-art theater.
For the next 2_ hours, a packed audience was riveted – sometimes tearfully – by the performance that told the true story of Matthew Sheppard, the victim of a tragic 1998 hate crime. At its conclusion, the actors somberly joined together onstage to screaming cheers and a standing ovation that continued for two full minutes.
As the cast and crew lay on the grass in the sun, having just disassembled the set and loaded the truck after the morning performance, groups of theater students spotted them, shouting, “Hey Laramie Project! Your play was awesome! It trans-FORMED me!” “Yeah! It changed the way I think, seriously!” Especially touching was the comment from a festival volunteer, who quietly offered, “Your show had heart, it really had heart.”
Actor Emma Niles commented, “I talked to a lot of kids who said that they would never have been able to do a show like “The Laramie Project” at their school because of its mature content. Meeting these other theater-loving teens made me realize how thankful I am to Ms. Silver for trusting that we could handle the material.”
Sunday afternoon’s Awards Ceremony brought prestigious honors to CCHS: Louie Chavez for his winning Senior Audition monologue, for which he received a $500 scholarship; Kevin Mitchell, Best Male Cameo Performance for his portrayal of the Rev. Fred Phelps; Brandon Blum, Best Actor (multiple roles); and Best Ensemble – the festival’s highest honor – for an extraordinary second year in a row. In addition, AVPA Film student Ben Mullen was awarded second place honors in the film category for “iDate”.
Actor Sierra Parsons commented, “CETA was unbelievable… Spending three days with 2,000 high school theater students reminds me why I love theater and can’t wait to expand my knowledge and repertoire of an art form that gives me the opportunity to express myself in such an incredible way”.
Rookie Nathan Palman, who received a Certificate of Excellence in Theatre, remarked, “It was a long, difficult, and tiring task, but telling this truly important story and being so well-received and reviewed as an actor made it all worth it. Winning CETA was just the cherry on top”.
Director Sheila Silver had long hoped to bring this story to the stage for its themes of tolerance and acceptance. Feeling tremendous pride for her students and deeply moved by the instant camaraderie she felt with Theatre directors in attendance, she later reflected, “I am humbled…winning CETA once was amazing. Winning it twice validates the work to which AVPA and CCUSD is committed. As Father Roger says in the play, ‘tell it right and tell it well,’ and we tried to do just that.”
Upon receiving his award, Brandon Blum graciously stated, “It was an honor to work on a show with the level of impact that “The Laramie Project” had. I am honored to have received my award and I’d like to thank everyone involved, especially Ms. Silver.”
As the bus pulled up to Culver City High School on Sunday night, Ms. Silver and 48 students shared an emotional last few moments of a weekend they will always remember. Having spent the past 3_ years committed to AVPA Theatre, veteran thespian Kevin Mitchell reflected, “Coming home from CETA, I experienced nearly every emotion known to man. I guess that means that art makes you a more complete human being.”- Liz Kinnon
[AVPA Theatre is extremely grateful to Sony Pictures Entertainment, Playa Vista, Center Theatre Group, The Actors Gang, and the Culver City Education Foundation, whose generous support made the CETA experience possible.]