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"You can actually tell when the audience starts to realize these are true stories," explained Project: Shattered Silence artistic director and founder Jared O'Roark a month before opening night of the project's latest theatrical outing, Compositions. "You can actually tell because the tears the kids are shedding are no longer fake tears that you see on the stage sometimes. They're really shedding truth."
Unlike youth theatre groups that stray from risqué and raw material — such as homosexuality, religion, depression and rebellion — O'Roark encourages conversation and tells the teens to take pride in their stories. Discussion leads to acceptance and artistry, and — over the course of a school year — a theatrical work is put together, based entirely on truth.
When the project began in 2009, "They were making up stories. We just thought, 'Okay. We'll just do made-up stories' [until] I started talking to this Hispanic girl…and she started crying," said O'Roark. "She literally just started crying in front of me, and I [asked], 'What is going on?' She [said], 'I don't have anything. I cannot think of anything.' … I started talking to her, and she started telling the story of how her grandmother married her grandfather, so he can have citizenship, and then they fell in love — deeply in love… Throughout the whole story, I was sitting there just going, 'Oh my God, let's just do that. Let's put that on stage. That's awesome!'" One true story led to another. "When we put the script together, I shared it with the other group, and then all of a sudden this girl Madison, a larger girl, wanted to [talk] about what it's like to be bigger in society, so I [thought], 'Okay,' and then these other two kids, who are very openly gay, wanted to talk about that, and I was like, 'Okay.' The end of the first year ended up being half true stories and half fake stories. We noticed that the audience really latched onto the true stories, and ever since then, it's only been about true stories."
Now in its fifth year, Project: Shattered Silence presents Compositions, which runs through June 15 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, where O'Roark has worked for years and now is the creative director of the Project. The cast of 34, ranging from 15-21 years in age, tell stories of diversity, individuality and sexuality and even find some of their parents on stage alongside them.
"We added parents last year, and it's insane." This year, O'Roark explained, "we have Armani Irizarry, who is very openly gay, and his mother who is trying to come to terms with that and [thinking], 'How do I deal with it?' I'm very proud of that piece because we actually go back into her history and how she was fighting for equality for Hispanics and blacks in New Jersey in the '60s and '70s. What we did is we put these stories side by side… It was so funny to watch her because you actually see her go, 'Holy crap! He's going through the exact same identity stuff that I went through — it's not what I went through, but it is what I went through at the same time.' She actually said — and I put it in the script — 'I never thought of this before, but Armani's got a community that is fighting suicide at some points, so it's almost like his struggle is harder because they're fighting for survival.' We don't try to put down anyone's point of view. We want to make sure it's all heard."
O'Roark — who began Shattered Silence as a passion project — always ensures everyone is heard. In fact, that is how he puts together the annual Shattered Silence production. After signups — which have increased yearly — he warms up the students with board games, assesses their personalities with a survey and sits them down to simply "talk."
"They talk, I type," he explained. "It's very similar to how A Chorus Line was done, only there is no [overall] story to follow, other than [within] the pieces."
Through the process, he notices similarities in stories to create a linear model, molds language into monologues and gets each and every "voice" on its feet. In the show, the cast remains on stage through its entirety — as both a support system and functioning as other characters in the individual stories. "It is Clear Water, FL, for crying out loud. It's still not the most open area in the world," he said, "so what happens is they remain on stage at all times. I have kids who don't believe in gay marriage in the room, and they're okay to think that, but what's funny is that they have actually stood up for those kids before. Gabrielle sticks out in my mind because she didn't believe in gay marriage, but someone was really putting down a dear friend of hers, who is gay, and she stood up for him. The whole show is trying to show that just because someone is gay doesn't mean that they are gay and that's all they have. Just because someone is a cutter doesn't mean they are a cutter and that's all it is. We're trying to show that every single human being on the planet is multifaceted… There's a lot of things about me that make me me."
This year's Compositions includes stories of two girls (both Christian) who were cutters, two girls who had an eating disorder, growing up gay and more.
O'Roark believes that Shattered Silence is simply opening a "dialogue" between parent and child. He added, "What the kid could not put into words for the parent to understand — and what the parents could not comprehend because they never went though it — by doing this show, they actually figure out where those words are to talk to each other. One of the fascinating things is that I see people coming who are in the teenage range — because they [come to see] their friends — but then I see those kids come back in later shows that week, and they are bringing their parents. I can't tell you how many parents have told me, 'I came to see it with them,' and I guess it's starting a dialogue."
O'Roark admitted that most of the cast members aren't "actors," nor is he trying to push them in that direction. His only hope is that Project: Shattered Silence gives youngsters a newfound confidence. "I visually see the confidence," he said.
The benefit of breaking their silence, he said, is that students think, " Once I've let it go, and I can't hide it anymore, I'm in control, so if you make fun of me for my story, I don't really care anymore because I also know there are people who won't make fun of me for this story."
"They take ownership of their story," O'Roard added with pride. *
Performances of Compositions are offered June 12-14 at 7:30 PM and June 14-15 at 2 PM at Ruth Eckerd Hall (1111 N. McMullen Booth Road in Clearwater, FL).
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(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael).