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NORMAL — A passionate group of local teens will share their talent and an important message Friday at the Illinois Theatre Festival at Illinois State University.

Normal Community West Community High School theater students were the only group selected from The Pantagraph area to perform in the statewide festival.

The students will perform "The Laramie Project," a documentary-style play based on the true story of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered due to his sexual orientation in Laramie, Wyo, in October 1998.

During a final dress rehearsal at the high school Thursday, students said they are proud of the anti-hate message the play conveys.

“It was not acceptable to be gay in a small town then. The play asks the question: Do we reject tragedy or do we reject homosexuality? What part of it do we accept and what part do we push away?” said senior Brenna Long.

“(Homophobia) is still an issue happening today. It’s something that should be brought to people's attention. Sometimes ignorance is worse than trying to put a stop to something. If you’re not aware of it, you’re unaware of the fact you can do something to help,” said sophomore Jack Courtad.

In the three-act play the 11-member cast frequently changes costumes and roles to take on numerous characters with help from six crew members and the director, Ryan Kerr.

Each character tells a different story about Shepard, including events that led up to his death and what occurred after.

The festival will draw more than 4,000 Illinois students, teachers and volunteers to the Normal campus Friday and Saturday to put on 25 high school productions and provide 150 theater workshops to students and teachers.

Another local student participating in a performance is Victoria Moore at Normal Community High School. Moore will join the crew for the all-state production of "Big Fish."

The performances are not open to the public.

The students can attend workshops for stage makeup, improvisation, building a character and set design. Student attendees also can view other schools’ performances.

“I’m excited to do workshops and see other shows,” said Courtad. “I really hope to gain more theater experience so I can become more professional through auditions and performing. I want to apply that to other aspects of my life, like gaining confidence.”

Kerr, an English and theater teacher at Normal West, said the noncompetitive atmosphere of the festival means the students will experience nothing but support and constructive advice.

“I’m proud of them. It’s a tough show to do no matter what level performer you are, but the kids looked it in the face and took it on. They’re telling an important story and telling it with the maturity it deserves and demands," said Kerr.

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Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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Public Safety Reporter

Public safety reporter for The Pantagraph.

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