THIRD ANNUAL HEART OF ART AWARD WINNER
The Talent Notes is pleased to present to you our interview with Jared O’Roark, winner of the Third Annual Heart of Art Award and currently the Executive Artistic Director for “The Space” studio.
TTN: What are some of your thoughts about receiving The Heart of Art Award:
JARED: Awards are awesome and incredible, but I think what was so special about this was that other people had to vote for it. I’m not someone who is very good at saying “Hey, vote for me!” But what this did was that it showed me the amount of people that have been so supportive of what I’m doing, what I’ve done, and who I am. I was humbled and honored to feel that support. That is what makes this award special. As an artist we don’t always know if we are reaching people, and the amount of people from high school and beyond who responded was touching beyond words.
TTN: Jared, a lot of what you have been known for, of course, is Project Shattered Silence…so tell us, how did it change your life and the lives of others?
JARED: I think the original goal of P:SS was to give the teenagers something that I didn’t feel I had when I was growing up. I was a gay kid, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was scared to talk about what I was feeling inside. I mean, I was a gay teenager trying to walk through the waters alone, because I was scared to say it out loud. And I also had a close cousin who contracted HIV in the height of the crisis, and that also made it hard to speak the words. There was a lot of misconception and opinions that people had about being gay and HIV/AIDS in that time. So I was fighting all these variables in my life, so I kept a lot to myself – which was my own choice. The reaction from my family and all the people I know in Little Rock, once I said the words loud enough to be heard was incredible. So my goal of P:SS was to give teenagers that feeling that they can say it out loud.
I truly didn’t own my story, I allowed other people’s thoughts to own my story for me. I let their opinions of right and what was wrong dictate my comfort level. And as I got older (which, let’s face it, time is the greatest teacher) I learned that you don’t truly own your story until you say it for others to hear. Some people are going to walk away in disagreement, but I have learned that a LOT more people are going to walk to you – and sometimes it really surprises you who is in which camp. I think what P:SS did, and I didn’t have these words when I started the project 7 years ago, is that it allows teenagers to own their story, no matter what their story happens to be. I give them a place where they can understand, “Wait a second! I don’t have to let this one thing define me.” Because truth be told being gay is not a definition of a person, or being a cutter, or what you have seen. We are all made up of more components than just that. I think for teenagers that is truly how it helped, and continues to do so.
I think what surprised me most about the project is that adults latched on to these stories, as well. Prior to this current generation, I don’t think any of us have felt we were given the non-judgmental place to say things about ourselves. I think P:SS let adults face things they decided to stifle instead of face. It is not easy to face things, but you never attack fear by turning your back on it. It is only done face-to-face. And I think parents realized how much they still had to deal with, and they were humbled by teenagers telling their stories openly.
For me personally, it helped make me a better artist and a stronger individual. It helped me understand. It’s easy to say that I would walk around talking about how we had a place without judgment, but I can’t do that without acknowledging that I myself would judge. They are teenagers, and when I started I looked at their stories as like, “what do you know, kid, you’re a teenager” without ever saying that. However, they taught me that is what that age is; they are trying to figure it all out, of course they don’t know the things I would know at 36. I had forgotten, and I think most adults have forgotten, what it’s like to be sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, or even twenty. So, as adults, we try to impose these ideals on them that it takes time to learn. They haven’t gone through the process of learning what or who they are yet. And they don’t want to be told; they want to discover. We didn’t want to be told, why would they. The more things change the more they stay the same. So they taught me how to be less judgmental, and above all else, they taught me empathy.
TTN: In general, when you are dealing with talent, what are your goals, or what do you seek to accomplish?
JARED: I believe in diversity as my life. It’s not just a word I use cause I want grants. Diversity is in my gut, it’s in my friends, and it is in my family. My mother is Canadian, my dad is a Texan, very different ideals, very different situations, very different countries. On top of that, my mother was from a college educated family and my father was raised as a bricklayer who had to quit school and support the family, so educationally, very different families. On top of that I have fourteen first cousins, of those fourteen 3 are Japanese-American, 2 are African-American, and 2 are Mexican American. Diversity is my comfort zone, because that is all my life has ever been. I think people hear the word diversity and they think race first, but diversity is so much more than that. So when I say diversity I mean artistically, financially, racially, sexual orientation, and a whole bunch of other categories that don’t come to my mind right now.
TTN: What are your visions for the future, I assume a lot of it is tied up here in The Space?
JARED: Yeah, well I can tell you Erica Sutherlin and I – she is my artistic partner – we have a very strong vision of what we want to do with our theatre, The Space. We are huge fanatics of Joe Papp and Erica and I are mad fans of The Public Theater in New York City. It’s where A Chorus Line got its start, it’s where The Normal Heart got its start it’s where For Colored Girls… actually got its start, and what the public theater did is it created theater for its community. It honored artists (primarily writers), and it created theatre to start conversations. It took risks (and it didn’t always succeed), but it wanted to challenge thinking. The Public Theatre knew its audience and tried to speak from their diverse points of view. Tampa itself is a very diverse community, so what we are trying to do, is we are trying to follow that model, and create theater that everyone can come and see. The goal is that people need to see themselves on stage. I needed to see more gay characters when I was a teenager that were not overly flamboyant or not the witty over sexual sidekick. Erica needed to see more black characters on tv that were not poor or angry. Robert Morris, who owns the place is middle eastern, I am sure he needed to see more Lebanese characters on television or in the movies. The arts, and in Erica and I we focus on theater, are how people connect to others on a higher level. My visions for the future are for creating a place where people, of all backgrounds, can see themselves on stage, and connect with characters that are not stereotypes of who they are, but are indeed carved out souls of who they are. That is my goal, that is what I am trying to do, and I hope at the end of my life that is what I am still trying to do. People can connect on a deep level if they listen, and my goal is to find and create the theater pieces that helps them listen to each other instead of just talk to each other. Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do here.