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As Anoka’s Lyric Arts theater contemplated its upcoming season, director-in-residence Robert Neu successfully lobbied for “The Laramie Project.”

The play seemed timely in light of recent efforts to counter student bullying based on sexual orientation and the legalization of same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

“Laramie,” which opens Sept. 6 and launches the theater’s 2013-14 season, examines the aftermath of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in Laramie, Wyo. “It really shook the residents that ‘their own’ kids in town, who everyone knew, committed this crime,” Neu said, adding, “It clarified their thinking about hate and hate crimes.”

Logistically, the play is a challenge, with a dozen actors portraying 60 different roles. To make it believable, “We spend a lot of time looking at the characters, how to differentiate them, respecting the fact that these are real people,” he said.

Laura Tahja Johnson, the theater’s managing artistic director, said that even though the theme is serious, “there’s a lot of humor in the show, and it delivers a very uplifting message about how generous and caring a community can be in the face of horrible events.”

In some ways, the play represents a new direction for the theater, which is working to challenge itself on many different levels this year, she said.

That doesn’t mean that the theater is scrapping its more-usual fare, such as popular Broadway musicals or family-friendly comedies, but it’s tackling some serious themes and delving into new material. “We really strive to produce something for everyone,” she said. “We expanded that this year. Our ‘everyone’ got bigger this year.”

Familiar titles

In the upcoming season, some shows like the holiday favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life” or the 1950s drama “Picnic,” which is “one of the greats of the American theater canon,” or “The Red Velvet Cake War,” a comedy about a family reunion gone awry, will seem familiar, she said.

Another recognizable title, “Rent,” bookends the season. When the popular musical first opened off-Broadway in 1996, it was a game-changer in terms of the Broadway rock musical, she said. Plus, it has an “amazing rock score.”

The show, which is an interpretation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “La Boheme,” tells about struggling artists who are squatting in a New York building. “They were authentic people with big artistic dreams,” she said.

It seems to resonate with Gen-Xers, along with those who are in their 20s now, she said.

But “Godspell,” which originated in the 1970s, has been updated for modern audiences. In describing the revival version, “the director calls it Brooklyn hipster nerd chic,” she said.

Taking a risk

“Hormel Girls,” by local playwright Laurie Flanigan, might be new to many audience members. It pays homage to a troupe of singing and dancing saleswomen that Hormel Foods put together following World War II.

The play originated as a commission by the St. Paul History Theatre, where it opened in 2007. It’s a “risk” for the theater in the sense that it’s not as well-known as some of the other shows, she said.

At the same time, it’s something the theater is excited to do. “It’s a great script, and the music is wonderful,” she said.

And, a real-life Hormel girl will be coming to the theater for a post-show talkback.

For “The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged),” a three-member cast runs through all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 97 minutes. The fast-paced show isn’t straight-up Shakespeare. “It’s very funny, with bits and pieces of Shakespeare,” which will appeal even to non-Shakespeare fans, she said.

“Junie B. Jones and Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” and “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type,” are both based on popular children’s books. Although aimed at the younger set, the shows are substantial enough to hold anyone’s attention, she said.

Also, in the in-between times, the theater is bringing back its Music in the ’Burbs concert series. Over the course of 10 concerts, musicians cover a wide variety of styles and genres.

A focus on collaboration

To help carry out the theater’s goals, it has restructured its staff and bulked up its production team, Johnson said.

Still, the theater’s mission to provide a nurturing, community-building experience for artists and audiences in an intimate, comfortable atmosphere, remains the same, she said.

Production Director Brian Proball said it’s his job to facilitate collaboration between the designers and directors. In the past, they didn’t necessarily “connect with each other” during the planning process, he said.

“Normally what happens is, designers design, and then they check with others to see if they match,” he said.

Now, they’re talking about it beforehand “so it’s not a happy accident, but more of a group decision,” he said.

It’s about attention to detail, and striking the right notes for each show. For example, in a period piece like “Hormel Girls,” “we want to make sure nothing is out of place,” he said.

The set for that show will incorporate real product labels from the company.

By contrast, “The Laramie Project” has a bare-bones set — a bunch of chairs, and “that’s it,” he said.

Scott Ford, a resident director at the theater, has offered input on artistic matters, led theater workshops and mentored artists of all ages. He’s also serving as an ambassador for the theater. “It’s easy for me to do, because I have such positive feelings about the work it’s doing,” he said.

He said he enjoys the supportive environment at Lyric Arts. “It’s great to feel like a part of a community of artists all headed in the same direction with the same kinds of goals in mind,” he said.

Likewise, the audience has a big part in the theater’s direction. “It’s a very audience-­centered organization. It’s part of what I like about them,” he said.

Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.