Emili Feigelson and Adam Becker in "The Laramie Project."
By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: June 3, 2007
EARLIER this spring, just about the time when John Jay High School in Cross River was making headlines for banning the use of the word “vagina” in a reading of “The Vagina Monologues,” a group of students at Sleepy Hollow High School approached the administration about putting on “The Laramie Project.”
“The Laramie Project” is a play that explores the killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie. After Mr. Shepard’s death, members of the Tectonic Theater Project, a group based in New York, traveled to Laramie and interviewed more than 200 people. The edited interviews, as well as the trial testimony of the two men convicted of Mr. Shepard’s murder, were distilled into the script.
Students from Sleepy Hollow High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance considered the play’s message powerful and wanted to stage a production. But high schools are not independent theaters, and the students soon found themselves negotiating with the principal about the use of profanity in the play.
To the students, it was a question of censorship. “It was agony,” said Emili Feigelson, 17, co-president of the alliance. “The play is taken from interviews, and we were very worried about maintaining the play’s artistic integrity.”
To the administration, it was simply school policy. The play was reviewed using the same standards applied to any other school event.
“We have a code of conduct, and it specifies language guidelines,” said Howard W. Smith, superintendent of the Tarrytown schools. “It’s ironic that given the subject matter, the subject matter itself was never controversial. It was just the language. We are a school, and there are generally accepted standards.”
Conflicts between high school regulations and free speech are not uncommon, and some disputes have reached the Supreme Court, which has generally ruled in favor of the school’s right to regulate speech. In the 1980s, the court upheld the authority of school officials to ban vulgar or offensive student speech and to control the content of school newspapers.
In March, the justices heard another free-speech school case, this one involving a student in Alaska who unfurled a banner with the inscription “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” at an off-campus event attended by students. The principal demanded that the student take the banner down. The student refused and was suspended for 10 days. (The court has not yet ruled on the case.)
Things never reached that point in Sleepy Hollow. Instead, students worked with a teacher to come up with an edited version of “The Laramie Project.”
“We decided the message was more important than keeping in the words, so we edited it and the principal approved it,” Emili said.
While they were in the midst of trying to find a school site for the production — the high school auditorium is under construction — a staff member at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville heard about the students’ efforts. The center was presenting its “Out at the Movies” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film series, so it seemed fitting to offer the theater for a reading, said Kathryn Bonomi, a film programmer there. Ms. Bonomi also invited a cast member from the Tectonic Theater Project to work with the students.
The students presented their reading at the film center on May 23, in a production that was not formally affiliated with the school. Still, the audience was filled with Sleepy Hollow students and parents. Dr. Smith also came to see the show. Afterward, the eight performers, not all of whom are in the Gay-Straight Alliance, talked about their experience.
“It’s the only thing besides ‘Saving Private Ryan’ that made me cry,” said Anthony Hinds, a 17-year-old junior. “It opened up how much homophobia was in our schools. All of the sudden a filter was taken out of my mind. Now, when my friends say, ‘Oh, that’s so gay,’ I say, ‘Listen to what you’re saying. I know you’re not homophobic, so why would you say that?’ ”
Lucie Steiner, 17, a senior and the co-president of the alliance, said: “It forces you to learn about people and relate to people you don’t want to relate to. In the script, you see people as monsters saying things that your friends say every day.”
Sleepy Hollow High School students aren’t the first in Westchester to tackle “The Laramie Project.” Rye Country Day, Harrison, Croton-Harmon, Ossining, Pelham and John Jay high schools have all staged productions.
The students were tentatively scheduled to read the edited version of the play at the W. L. Morse School, a Sleepy Hollow elementary school, on Thursday. Many were still unhappy about the editing.
“It’s dangerous to be safe,” Lucie said. “The purpose of high school is to educate kids on things that matter, and this absolutely matters.”