The Lingering Power of "The Laramie Project"

Groton School turned a powerful weekend performance of The Laramie Project into an opportunity for all-school introspection.
Students were required to attend the play, which chronicles the evolving attitudes of residents of Laramie, Wyoming after the 1998 murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard.
One of the original cast members of The Laramie Project, Barbara Pitts McAdams, met with student leaders of Groton’s Diversity and Inclusion Group on Sunday. Pitts McAdams also delivered an all-school talk Monday morning, in which she explained her desire to effect social change through theater.
Pitts McAdams acted not only in The Laramie Project, but also in The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. She was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding writing on HBO’s version of the play. The actress began her talk by praising Groton’s student production, in particular “the real depth with which the audience met you back.”
She touched on a wide range of topics in her morning presentation, from her own experience being bullied to the need to examine one’s “conditioned beliefs”—beliefs that may be deeply ingrained but that are not always consciously chosen by an individual.

She also described how ancient Toltec guidelines known as the “Four Agreements” influence her. The agreements are:
  • Be impeccable with your word.
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Always do your best.
For Pitts McAdams, that last agreement validates her career choice. Always service-oriented, even as a child, she came to realize that doing her best—which for her, meant working in theater—was how she could serve humankind. Like The Laramie Project, her work often takes on social or public policy issues. 

For example, Pitts McAdams told the Groton audience about Too Big, a play she directed that tackles the student loan crisis. She contrasted that emotional piece of theater with a data-driven book on the same topic, Strapped by Tamara Draut. Same topic, different approach—the Strapped author and the actress, each doing her best, each drawing attention to policies that need change. The message to students was clear: whatever your strength and interests, do your best and you can make a difference.
Effecting social change, however, can be maddeningly slow, even with a play that got as much attention as The Laramie Project. Federal legislation against hate crimes did not pass until eleven years after The Laramie Project—one year after The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later was staged. In that sequel, Pitts McAdams played Judy Shepard, the victim’s mother, a dogged lobbyist for the federal legislation. Her quest inspired the actor, who concluded her Monday talk at Groton with one of Judy Shepard's monologues from the play.
Later on Monday, after morning classes, students broke into small discussion groups, guided by a student Diversity and Inclusion leader, and grappled with the play and how it relates to their lives. They pondered the difference between tolerance and acceptance, and reflected on what helped bring about change in Laramie, Wyoming, and what might motivate change on the Circle.

Finally, they thought about what a play called The Groton Project might look like. Who would share their stories, and what would the composite voice of the community sound like?

See more photos from The Laramie Project on our multimedia page.