After the last performance was over, after 10 protesters with hate in their heartsand over 200 counter-protesterslined the sides of North Duke Street, after newspaper and television camera crews followed members of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church who’d come all the way from Topeka, Kan., just to picket a show, the actors and director of Durham School of the Arts’ May 2005 production of The Laramie Project sat down together to try to describe their duty, their obligation to the people they had portrayed on stage.

“They knew the weight they had to bear pretty early on,” said director Douglas Graves. He’d given each actor “character journals” in which to record and question each of the seven different characters each actor had to portray.

“I had never felt such a responsibility as an actress to ‘say it correct,’ as a character says in the play. And to not stereotype these people,” graduating senior Charlotte Valentine recalled.

“Usually actors have a degree of license,” observed junior Max Kaufman, “so we can say ‘Let’s make this character the way I’d like to play him.’ But there were real people standing behind each of these characters.”

“We had to be so careful,” remembered sophomore Cristiana Krtalic. “The words were sacred because they came out of somebody’s mouth. Out of respect for [Officer] Reggie Fluty, Dr. Cantaway and even the Baptist Minister, you don’t want to say it wrong.”

Graves remembered, “I ultimately said, ‘Don’t worry about how it sounds, or how it looks. Just speak it. Just try to absorb these words as your own. Let the words do the work.’ Like magic, the emotions just came; the emotional connections that made them realize where the characters are coming from.”

But Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project’s lesson in artistic ethics took on an added dimension when company members stepped outside on Saturday night, May 7.

On the last night of the performance, the 10 cast members held hands and walked outside to see the demonstrators before the show”not as an act of defiance,” freshman Eliza Bagg quickly noted, “but an act of approaching them.”

After a few moments of silence, Carmen Ivey, a junior, recalled that the counter-protesters on the opposite side of the street turned away from the anti-gay demonstrators and cheered the performers. Valentine summed the moment: “There was just so much support, so much love we felt there.”

The colleagues we haven’t named yet were with them: juniors Lucas Campbell, Ryan Deal and Tulani Hauger-Kome, founder of DSA’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and seniors John Douglas and Colin Moore. So were Graves and assistant director Elizabeth French, a senior.

The crew waited inside: technical director Daniel Deter, stage manager Sam Hensen, light designer Ryan Kay, prop mistress Adrian Boyes, Chris Austin on the light board with Jasper Pettie assisting, Anni Simpson on the sound board, and projectionist Bill Blake.

For demonstrating considerable artistic integrity, and for their courage in facing the advocates of holy hatred, the Independent fondly confers this special award to the cast, crew and director of The Laramie Project.