On Thursday night at 7 p.m., the Milton High School Theatre Company will put on “The Laramie Project” for the community in the high school’s auditorium.

They will perform the same show this upcoming Saturday for the Vermont Regional One Act Festival in St. Johnsbury, competing against five other Vermont schools.

The top two schools will advance to the festival’s statewide competition in Springfield this April.

“The Laramie Project,” selected by the students, is a play about the reactions and aftermath of the 1998 murder of the gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

To meet the festival’s requirements, the play has been cut to about half its original length, clocking in at 60 minutes, including arranging and breaking down the set. There are 13 actors, nine of which are on stage for the entirety of the production.

First-time director Amanda DeCarlo, also an art teacher at the high school, has worked with MHS theatre for five years. She described the play as “one of the most challenging” for her cast.

DeCarlo said because the play is one continuous act, actors can’t check their lines offstage. Nearly all costume changes happen on stage, and something as simple as taking off a hat or putting on a pair of glasses means embodying a totally different character.

Some actors in the caste play multiple residents who lived in Laramie at the time of the murder, as well as the interviewer who spoke with them during the original production in 2000.

DeCarlo said playing multiple characters was novel for the cast, and switching roles on stage requires quick physical and vocal changes.

Skyler Austin plays three residents of the town, as well as his “base” character or interviewer. At one point, Austin said he is on stage playing both a homophobic protester at Shepard’s funeral and one of the victim’s good friends who is there to mourn.

“You have to sort of put your feelings aside and let the words on the page take over and the mindset that you’re setting for yourself,” he said.

Student director Faith Carroll said the cast has been rehearsing for about three months. She was unfamiliar with the Matthew Shepard story before reading the play.

“It’s very different from what we’ve done before. It’s more modern, and it’s a true story,” she said. “I found it really powerful and really moving.”

Carroll suspects most of the audience on Wednesday will have been alive when the murder actually took place, bringing an added relevance and familiarity.

DeCarlo said the play is structured to allow audience members to put themselves on the stage, in Laramie, and to question their own views on equality, homophobia, religion, morality, community, punishment, justice and play’s other themes.

For the festival this weekend, the theatre company had cast T-shirts made that say “Erase Hate,” the slogan of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

DeCarlo said the foundation was instrumental in helping the cast put on the production, sending news articles and photos about the case, and making itself available as a resource.    

Alana Bigos, a junior at MHS, plays five different characters in the show, as well as her base character. She said the One Act Festival is one of her favorite experiences as an actor, because she can appreciate other students’ work as well as get recognition for her own.

Bigos said the Laramie Project, which takes place in a small town in Wyoming, could be any town in America.

“Hate crimes happen all over the United States, and they haven’t stopped, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an anti-gay hate crime,” she said.

Bigos wants the audience to feel the play, as well as watch it.

“Once you really see someone perform this, once you see them feel it, you feel it, too,” she said. “And that’s what our goal is – to make people feel and think.”

Donations to MHS Theatre Company will go toward the students’ trip to the Regional One Act Festival on Saturday.