Students usually bank on learning lines and blocking for theatre productions.

Students usually bank on learning lines and blocking for theatre productions.

The "Laramie Project," slated to run this weekend and next at the Mershad Auditorium in the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts, 100 W. Dublin Granville Road, gave the students involved more than acting lessons, though.

The "Laramie Project" is about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. -- a hate crime based on his sexual orientation. The play is based on more than 200 interviews of Laramie residents after Shepard was killed and includes reactions and politics at the time.

"I'm a huge fan of the show," drama department director Elliot Lemberg said. "I think it's a very powerful show and important for them to see and experience because it promotes messages of tolerance. It causes students to look at their lives."

Junior Mark Sypek plays seven parts in the play. While researching it, he said, the murder of such a young man struck a chord with him.

"The message wasn't about a gay man. We're not promoting a certain lifestyle," he said. "This is about a hate crime. This man was so young, and this affected thousands of people."

Daniel Jimenez graduated in 2006 but was asked back to play five roles in the show. His roots made him think about hate crimes and feel a connection to the show, he said.

"I'm Mexican, and I think about someone hurting me because I'm Mexican," Jimenez said. "A hate crime is a hate crime no matter what. That struck me, and I think it struck a lot of other people."

Although the students playing multiple characters in the show are certain to take something from the performance, Lemberg said, special speakers could offer education to the community as a whole.

Shepard's mother, Judy, will speak during a community open house at 5:30 p.m. May 2 at the arts center. In the free presentation, Shepard will talk about her son's death and her campaign to erase hate.

Lemberg said after having a speaker at the "Diary of Anne Frank" production, he realized this might be a good time to offer the option again.

"I thought it would be good to have Judy Shepard in," he said. "I tried different avenues through organizations in Columbus to connect with Judy to see if it would be feasible."

Lemberg found a contact from a parent and secured funding from Limited Brands Inc.

Shepard won't be the only speaker, though. The Matthew Shepard Foundation's education director, Thomas Howard, will facilitate discussion between the audience and cast after the May performances.

"We had wanted Judy to speak in conjunction with the performance, but we found out she doesn't attend any Laramie productions," Lemberg said. "Thomas Howard has spoken after shows and initiated dialogue. He can speak after the show and people can connect with something with a real person there."

Students aren't sure what to expect from the after-show discussion, but they have a few hopes.

"What I want this show to bring about is an honest discussion," junior Laura Chamberlain said. "Having two people here will help that. This won't change minds, but an honest discussion is important."

Show times for "Laramie Project" are 7:30 p.m. April 24-26 and May 1-3. Performances also are scheduled for 2:30 p.m. April 26 and May 3.

Howard will be at the shows May 1-3.

To reserve a seat for "Laramie Project" or tickets to Shepard's May 2 talk, call (614) 413-8611.

jnoblit@thisweeknews.com