N.J. theater group returns to Laramie, 10 years later

Scott Mandel and Amy Henderson Riley during a rehearsal of "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later." Both are members of Open Book Collaborative, a new group based in Collingswood that is putting on plays to raise money for a variety of causes.
Scott Mandel and Amy Henderson Riley during a rehearsal of "The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later." Both are members of Open Book Collaborative, a new group based in Collingswood that is putting on plays to raise money for a variety of causes. (DAN HARDY / Staff)
Posted: November 07, 2012

The 1998 death of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student beaten to death outside Laramie, Wyo., evoked a cascade of anguished and insightful responses, including two plays, an HBO movie, and a foundation established in his name.

Fourteen years later, ripples from Shepard's death continue to launch ventures.

One is a South Jersey theater collective whose members formed bonds of friendship and common purpose while performing last year in a Collingswood production of The Laramie Project, a play that tells about Shepard's life and death through the words of the Wyoming city's residents.

In the summer, the director of that production and four actors in it, all with Collingswood connections, decided to form a new group, the Open Book Collaborative. It aims to use the stage to explore social themes while raising money for causes.

Their first venture is a stage reading Friday at Haddonfield Plays and Players of a Laramie Project sequel. It's called The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later and explores residents' attitudes a decade after Shepard was murdered by two young townsmen.

Proceeds will go to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which says its mission is "to replace hate with understanding, compassion, and acceptance."

Scott Reynolds, a board member of Haddonfield Plays and Players, said he welcomed the production and the impulse behind it.

"We have a long history of cause-related events being hosted in our theater," he said. "This one strikes a chord for a lot of our actors and our audiences."

The purpose of the Open Book Collaborative, said Amy Henderson Riley, the play's director, is "to pick a cause and make it our financial cause" through donating the production's proceeds.

Henderson Riley, a New York transplant to Collingswood with a resumé that includes five years as a professional actress, made her debut as a director last fall with the Collingswood Community Theater performance of The Laramie Project.

"I wanted to do something that was meaningful, something that had substance," she said.

That impulse paid off in a way she could not have imagined.

After putting on the play, Henderson Riley and cast members Chris Eckenrode, Scott Mandel, Alfie Mannino, and Joe Sperlunto found themselves wanting to do more.

"It helped me see how you can make a difference. . . . Through art, you can effect change," Eckenrode said.

Their professional credentials outside the theater world range from public health education (Henderson Riley) to yoga instructor and nonprofit trainer (Mandel), teacher (Mannino), law firm business analyst (Eckenrode), and nonprofit gifts processor (Sperlunto).

Some are stage veterans, some novices. They share the conviction that theater provides a unique opportunity to combine self-expression with community dialogue.

The name of the group, they said, signals their resolve to work in a collective and openhanded manner among themselves and with others.

The Open Book Collaborative plans to partner in the future with other local theater groups to stage more fund-raising productions, though the subject matter may not always be as serious as the one about Laramie, Henderson Riley said. "We might just do a comedy."

Whatever the play, said Mannino, "our mission will remain the same: to bring issues to the attention of the community."

He added that the group's members are mostly not political activists in the narrow sense of the term, but they want their shows to spark community discussion.

"We don't want to say, 'This is our political view - this is what you should think,' " he said. "But to bring things out into the open - to bring them to their attention - is very important."


"The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later" will be performed Friday at 8 p.m. at Haddonfield Plays and Players, 957 E. Atlantic Ave., Haddonfield. Tickets are $15. For more information, go to the Open Book Collaborative's Facebook page.

Contact Dan Hardy

at 856-779-3858 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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