Nolan Ebbinghaus didn’t plan on getting into theater in college, but while waiting tables, he had a relapse of the drama bug.
Ebbinghaus, a political science major at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, became interested in acting when he saw his older sister in a play. After doing several plays in high school, he thought his days on stage were behind him. That was until he started working at the West End Grill and Pub, which serves as a hang out for St. Louis actors and is adjacent to a black-box theater.
“People would ask me when I was waiting on their table if I was an actor, too,” he said. “That made me feel like I needed to go and reinvestigate acting.”
Ebbinghaus is one of nine UMSL students who will perform in “The Laramie Project” this weekend at the Lee Theater at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. The performance is presented by the UMSL Department of Theatre, Dance and Media Studies.
The Tectonic Theater Project developed “The Laramie Project” after visiting Laramie, Wyo., in the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. Shepard, an openly gay college student, was beaten and left for dead while tied to a fence on the outskirts of town, targeted due to his sexual orientation. Despite being found alive the next morning, he died of his injuries several days later. The prominent case became the catalyst for awareness of hate crimes and anti-hate crime legislation.
“The Laramie Project” constructs the story of the Shepard case and its impact on the college town of Laramie through interviews with residents who knew Shepard and others who did not. Most cast members play multiple parts, and Ebbinghaus’s roles include those of Shepard’s assailants Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Playing the roles of McKinney and Henderson has been a challenge for Ebbinghaus.
Part of Ebbinghaus’ job as an actor is also to give his characters a sense of humanity, which is difficult given the subject matter.
“I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make myself open to people and trying to understand where they’re coming from,” Ebbinghaus said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around somebody that’s totally closed-minded, and violently so.”
Jacqueline Thompson, visiting professor of theatre and dance, said Ebbinghaus makes his characters come alive on stage.
“He is disciplined, dedicated and eager to learn as much as possible about the craft of theatre,” Thompson said. “He takes direction effortlessly and exudes positivity and patience through the chaos of putting up a show as complicated as ‘The Laramie Project.’”
Ebbinghaus, a senior, grew up in Spanish Lake, Mo., and graduated from Hazelwood East High School, where he was involved in plays like “Guys and Dolls,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “Harvey.” But as a college student, he had assumed his drama bug was mostly behind him, until he started his West End job, and he decided that an acting class would improve his public-speaking skills, which would be valuable in the political arena.
In summer 2013, Ebbinghaus took Thompson’s Fundamentals of Acting class. Thompson told him about the spring production of “The Laramie Project” and encouraged him to audition. The play’s message of tolerance allows Ebbinghaus to combine acting with his passion for politics.
“We live in a world where tremendously terrible things happen all the time, and it’s very easy to become desensitized to that,” Ebbinghaus said. “Taking the story down to single unit of a mother and a father and their son has the ability to be more impactful than just hearing something on the news.”
Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $10 for the general public and $5 for students. This performance is for mature audiences only.