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Saint Mary’s hosts screening of ‘The Laramie Project’

| Thursday, October 5, 2017

On Wednesday night, students gathered in Vander Vennet Theatre for a screening of “The Laramie Project.” The film is adapted from a play based on interviews of townspeople after Matthew Shepard, a 22-year-old gay man, was kidnapped, beaten and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998.

This years’ Saint Mary’s Margaret Hill Visiting Artist is Barbara Pitts McAdams, who performs in the film and helped create the it and an award-winning play.

“We blundered into Laramie because we were all affected by what happened there,” Pitts McAdams said. “We weren’t qualified to do what we were doing.”

The film is about Shepard, who was openly gay in Laramie, a secluded town of skeptics. Before Shepard was killed, he attended the University of Wyoming. One of Shepard’s best friends in the movie said Shepard was interested in politics and had a passion for human rights.

The town was shocked to learn that Shepard was killed by two young men from Laramie — they expected the perpetrators to be from elsewhere.  The men bound Shepard to a fence and beat him with a pistol. When an officer found him unconscious, she said the only place on his head that wasn’t covered in blood was where he had been crying. He died several days later.

Pitts McAdams said all the actors for the play were “dramaturgs,” which are actors who provide extra research or structural support.

“They keep their eye on whether or not we’re veering from the story,” she said. “I was one of them.”

“We interviewed 200 people for the Laramie project, but we ultimately had about 60 characters,” she added. “We each may have been a dramaturg for our character or someone else’s character.”

Pitts McAdams played the landlady of the trailer park where one of the perpetrators lived. She was given information from the woman’s interview such as her occupation and her connection to the perpetrator. Pitts McAdams said playing this character made her confront her own assumptions.

“The first time I was handed her interview, I made this assumption in my mind,” she said. “To be crass, I assumed trailer trash. When I listened to her whole interview, she has a double major from the University of Wyoming and she owns the trailer park. I heard trailer park and I made all these blue-collar assumptions about her.”

When she met the character she was playing, Pitts McAdams realized there was more to the woman’s life.

“I really put her in a box. It made me realize how even those of us who consider ourselves not prejudiced that we still have to check ourselves and our assumptions about people,” she said.

Pitts McAdams is currently writing and directing a play that will be put on at Saint Mary’s, titled “If You Knew Me.” She has been interviewing students at Saint Mary’s about their experiences of diversity. Pitts McAdams said she has learned so much since doing “The Laramie Project.”

“What didn’t occur to us was that if we put people’s real names in the play, thousands of people will contact them,” she said. “We would probably do it differently now to protect our interview subjects from intrusion, but we just didn’t even know any better.”

Unlike “The Laramie Project,” the stories gathered for “If You Knew Me” will be anonymous.

Assistant director of the play, senior Makena Henell, had never seen “The Laramie Project” before Wednesday night.

“I thought it was really powerful and heartbreaking to see every side of the argument,” Henell said. “You thought people would be sympathetic, but they weren’t.”

Henell said the purpose of the Saint Mary’s play will be to bring awareness to diversity and inclusion.

“What the show really is is holding a mirror up to Saint Mary’s,” she said. “How is Saint Mary’s inclusive, how is it not inclusive? We’re trying to include diversity in every aspect — race, sexuality, mental illness — by listening to people’s stories and their perspectives.”

Pitts McAdams’ process is different than what Henell has worked with in the past.

“The big thing we’ve learned working with Barb is that it’s a lot harder working on an original project,” she said. “You’re really building on the experiences of other people. I had a friend tell me you have to remember people aren’t numbers — these people have friends and families and dreams and desires.”

Pitts McAdams said she is inspired by working on Saint Mary’s campus.

“Wherever we are in the conversation about diversity or inclusivity, I can totally see why anyone would want to go to college here,” she said. “It really is beautiful to experience.”

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