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‘The Laramie Project’ draws both applause and protests

POULSBO — Sondra Ashton vividly remembers first reading “The Laramie Project.”

She said she was deeply moved by the play, depicting interviews with more than 200 residents of Laramie, Wyo. after the violent death of Matthew Shepard.

“I thought, ‘This is so important. We have to do this,’” Ashton recalled. “These stories need to be told. It’s not about being gay. It’s about being different.”

And while the play got rave reviews during its opening weekend Sept. 26-27, its cast is now performing under a shadow of fear.

On Sept. 27, the Poulsbo Players received a letter from Westboro Baptist Church out of Topeka, Kan. stating: “‘The Laramie Project’ is a tacky bit of sodomite melodramatic propaganda — without theatrical or literary merit or social value. Its only purpose is to glorify sodomy and sodomites in defiance of God’s solemn warnings.”

The letter said the Jewel Box Theatre will be picketed by WBC members at 8 p.m. Oct. 25, while the “Fag-enabling” churches St. Olaf’s, St. Charles, First Lutheran and North Point Presbyterian will be protested on Oct. 26.

The WBC and its pastor Fred Phelps are nationally known for their strong anti-homosexual stance. Congregation members picketed Matthew Shepard’s funeral and make a point of staging protests at productions of “The Laramie Project” across the nation.

Ashton said as the director of the play, she’s very worried about the letter, which she felt was very threatening. And as the days go by, reactions from Poulsbo players are also turning toward worry.

“At first their reaction was, ‘Cool. Good publicity,’” Ashton said of her actors. “But then several of the cast members called me yesterday and their second response was fear.”

Ashton said when the decision was made to put on “The Laramie Project,” she notified the Poulsbo Police Department of the potential of a showing by Phelps’ group. Monday, she gave Chief Jeff Doran a copy of the letter she’d received.

“They have their staff alerted and all we have to do is pick up the phone and they’ll be there,” she said of the Oct. 25 event, which is the last night of the show.

Ashton added that they plan to have greeters stationed outside building Oct. 25 to make sure every audience member is given free access. A decision has yet to be made whether they will hire extra security.

Co-creative director David Speck pointed out they will make no attempt to stop the picket.

“As a theatre involved in the right of free speech, we have no objection to their lawful right of free speech,” Speck commented.

Despite fear about what will actually happen in Little Norway on Oct. 25, Ashton said the show must go on. Pushing aside their own uneasiness, the Poulsbo Players are resolved to present the play and Ashton said she’s hoping that the community will rally around the non-profit theatre.

“My hope is that people will be open enough to come and see what it really is,” Ashton said. “That it’s a play about people. It’s about all kinds of people. It’s about people’s fears and it’s also about their hope. And it’s about a lot of hope and compassion.”

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