My son likes to play the bad guy.

Sawyer started doing theater, acting in plays and musicals, when he was about 9. And while he’s played the occasional Ichabod Crane and Prince Eric, for the most part he’s auditioned for and landed the role of the bad guy, the antagonist to the hero.

Long John Silver in “Treasure Island.” The scheming Don John in “Much Ado About Nothing.” The murderous Tybalt in “Romeo & Juliet.”

Franz in “The Producers” wasn’t a traditional villain but he WAS a Nazi.

Sawyer played a drug dealer in “Polaroid Stories,” the unkind Noah Claypole in “Oliver!” and the unrelenting Officer Spuds in “Poet and the Rent.”

He likes these characters because he thinks they are more complex, more interesting. The costumes are almost always better.

And they’re opposite of who he is in real life. It’s a chance to act out.

But Sawyer was just playing himself, doing research on nuclear fusion for a school assignment, when Maureen Dias Watson, the artistic director at Greasepaint Youtheatre, called to ask me if he might be interested in a role in an upcoming show.

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The play was “The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project in New York. It’s about the reaction to the brutal 1998 killing of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.

I knew the case well. I had been pregnant at the time and already knew my baby would be a boy. I was horrified. My heart had gone out to his parents.

Matthew Shepard was just 21 when he was kidnapped, savagely beaten and left to die, tied to a buck fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo.

Shepard was gay, and his torture and murder brought international attention to hate crimes.

The script is written from news reports, the residents’ own words, and the playwrights’ journal entries of the year they spent in Laramie. The 20 or so actors would portray more than 60 characters in a series of short scenes, Maureen told me. It is powerful stuff.

Auditions for the show were over and a boy had been chosen for the roles of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two men convicted of killing Shepard.

But his mother had said no, he couldn’t take the role.

Maureen said the mom was uncomfortable about the idea of watching her son portray someone who had treated another human being in such a heinous way. To be the person onstage that the audience could hate.

The characters use cuss words and a word, I would learn soon, that Sawyer would have to confront, a word I don’t even like to write.

They were bad guys unlike any others.

She wanted to know if Sawyer could do it.

The world they live in

I had been confronted with this question once before, in 2013 when Sawyer was picked to play a desperate drug dealer in Naomi Iizuka’s “Polaroid Stories,” an edgy blend of classic mythology and the real-life stories of homeless street kids.

Back then, I had overheard some parents grumbling about the choice of the play. (Actually the students picked it from a half-dozen choices, voting on it in their acting classes.)

“What about ‘Grease’?” one parent had lamented.

I had smirked. In “Grease,” there’s smoking, drinking, sex in the backseat, a pregnancy scare and a heroine who dressed all in black leather to get the boy. (Maybe it’s not so bad because it’s a musical.)

I understand these parents’ concerns. We try to protect our children from the harsh things in the world. But it is the world they live in, and soon there would be no hiding it from them.

Sawyer wanted to do it. He would turn 18 during the run of the show. I figured he knew what he was getting himself into.

For all the reasons the other mother may had said no, I said yes. Because after he played a desperate drug dealer, he had come away with a better understanding — and more compassion — for what it might be like to be homeless.


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A way of thinking, a force

Before this play, Sawyer had never heard of Matthew Shepard. Few in the cast of teenagers, ages 14 to 19, had, either.

They have grown up in a different time. Sawyer has friends who are openly gay. It’s not only not a big deal to him, it’s no deal at all. Sawyer attends an arts school, where you can wear a gay pride T-shirt and no one cares. “I live in a bubble,” Sawyer said.

Now he immersed himself in a different time and in a small town, where the real-life characters grappled with how they felt about what happened, from saddened to defensive, distant to insightful.

Sawyer also would play a Mormon bishop, a news reporter and the young man who finds Matthew Shepard tied to the fence and goes for help. And that would balance the weight of playing the two bad guys.

I questioned having the same actor playing both killers, but Sawyer thought it made sense. Because this many years later, it seemed less like he was playing two specific people and more like he was playing a way of thinking, a force, that could lead to that kind of violence against another human being.

To play those characters, Sawyer had to understand what may have led them to such action. Greed. Drugs. Ignorance. Hate. He wanted the audience to understand these were people who did this terrible thing. “That’s the most important part,” he said. “They were human. Not just small, moronic demonized characters.”

One of the men felt remorse, Sawyer decided. The other did not. He said he could feel it when he spoke their words.

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‘Find your tribe’

After each of the three shows that weekend, there was what theater people call a “talk back,” where the actors sit on the edge of the stage afterward and talk with the audience.

Maureen thanked the audience for coming. None of the shows sold out, like the recent run of “Grease” had. (Groan. “Grease” again.) But she said the success of shows like that mean they can do shows like this. The message is important, she said, even almost 19 years later.

“All art impacts, but the immediacy and the intimacy of theater has an even more visceral power to it,” Maureen said. “For actors and the audience, this one is important because, as we have seen recently, every bit of progress can be erased by hate.”

After one show, a young man, in the same age range as the actors, raised his hand. He said he knew what Matthew must have felt. He’s scared sometimes that people hate him, even though they don’t know him — and don’t seem to want to.

“I feel like a misfit,” he said.

Maureen told him, “All of us” — her outstretched arm encompassing the actors, the director and stage managers, herself — “know what that’s like. The trick is to find the other misfits.” She hugged him and invited him to sit with the teenagers onstage.

“Find your tribe, and you can find — if not always protection — at least a community of people who will stand up for and with you,” she told him. Actors on either side put their arms around him.

At another show, a woman asked how difficult was it for Sawyer and actor Keegan Luther to play characters that they must have hated. Keegan played nine roles, including one of the playwrights, Shepard’s father, a detective, the CEO of the hospital where Shepard was treated and — the character the woman was referring to — the Rev. Fred Phelps.

Phelps, who founded the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and his followers picketed Shepard’s funeral, carrying signs that read, “God hates fags.” In the play, Keegan carried the same sign and shouted the same words.

“You try to do justice for the people who have experienced this,” Keegan said. A 19-year-old film student at Arizona State University, he has been in 23 productions. This was the most meaningful. His mother is a prosecutor and victims-rights advocate.

‘Show them what’s wrong’

Sawyer told the audience that both he and Keegan were uncomfortable saying the word “fag.”

“It’s a word you never want to get comfortable with,” Sawyer said. “But I had to, for the sake of exposing the truth that grosses me out about it in the first place.”

So backstage, he said the word hundreds of times, until he could say it like any other word.

Because, he said, it is one thing for people to know that something happened, or even read about it.

“There are people who believe that truth is mutable,” he said. “In order for people to feel like there’s something wrong, I think you need to show them what’s wrong. They need to hear it.”

No matter how hard it is to say.

Last week, Sawyer started rehearsal for “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a play based on a book by Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry about the origins of Peter Pan. He plays Black Stache, who later takes the name Captain Hook.

He’s another bad guy, but a different kind. The kind who’s gone when the curtain falls.

Reach Bland at [email protected] or 602-444-8614. Read more here. 


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