BWW Interview: In Conversation with Jeremy Stevens of The Orbit Initiative
Last fall, I had the opportunity to chat with Jeremy Stevens, the Education and Development Coordinator at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, about a project called the Orbit Initiative. This brand new venture is comprised of a broad assortment of programs that are spread across Tulsa, inspired by The Public Theatre's bellwether model. The Orbit Initiative's programs are designed to empower communities through the arts, and to use Stevens' three foundational words, create a more "kind, generous, and brave" future for our city. The inaugural year of the Orbit Initiative will culminate in a large-scale adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest on June 8th & 9th on the Chapman Stage at the PAC and will include performances from over 200 community members.
During a rare break from tech rehearsal, I sat down to chat with Mr. Stevens about The Tempest and some of what the Orbit Initiative has accomplished in the past 6 months. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Last time we talked, I learned a little bit about the early stages of The Tempest project. How did you transition from classes across Tulsa to the Chapman Stage?
Stevens: Once I made contact with community members and the classes were set up, we started looking for interest from those participants who were part of the classes, or adventures, as we call them. Once interest was there, we extended an invitation - they did not have to audition. We invited them to come to the PAC starting in May, and if they needed transportation they would let me know and we would provide it. We also had food vendors for that as well: any time that the community ensemble and community groups were at the PAC, we had food and transportation for them if they needed it.
Can you describe your role in terms of working on the production itself?
Stevens: Once we got that interest from the community groups, I turned it over to Sara (Phoenix) who is the director of the show. So my focus began to change, and as we moved into rehearsals, my attention turned to how many more sites can we expand to, how many teachers are we going to need, but also I need a band, so I'll start coordinating the music with the band, and I'll start looking for musicians to play...
What has been the biggest surprise you encountered in the past 6 months while working on The Tempest?
Stevens: The fact that the community members and the principal cast and the production team were all willing to be brave together - to go into this and treat it as the most important show we've ever been in, because in essence, it is. The creation of art is everyone's right, and that was evident from ages to 4 to 92: they want this and they're creating it together. Having food available has also offered an opportunity for groups from across Tulsa who would have never fellowshipped or conversed to sit down next to each other and talk and see that they have more alike than they thought. For me, that's probably the most important: the fact that across the city, we've got these relationships that have formed, that now will stay active for as long as they want to.
Can you speak a little more about the ways that you intentionally built community during the rehearsal process?
Stevens: Costumes. The instant that a community ensemble member puts on their costume, they become that character, and they feel that sense of belonging because now they look like part of what's going on onstage. That's supremely important: that everyone is given the same experience. And even more so for the community ensemble - we want them to understand that this work and this program is about them. And them putting on that costume is transformative. We say that all the time in the theatre, that when you put on your costume you become your character. But these folks have never done this before, and the bravery to say, "I'm going to put this costume on," and then watch them not want to take it off. That is everything to me.
How will your interpretation overturn audience expectations about Shakespeare and theatre in general?
Stevens: This adaptation does a great job of going in and out of iambic pentameter, so we have an opportunity to hear the formal language and the lyric language that Shakespeare wrote, and then we also have the opportunity to hear Ariel do some modern language. Instead of saying what is normally written, it's been adapted and paraphrased. The sassy breaking the 4th wall stuff helps connect with the audience immediately, and once the audience sees that, the story is not that far off from something they may relate to. The changing of the language is an immediate relationship builder with the audience.
[At this point in the interview, Mark Frie, the Director of the PAC, stopped by to share a few words about the project.]
Frie: When I came here, my goal all along was to make sure that we reach out and that the arts - and I truly believe this - nothing can bring people together like the arts. If you look at Tulsa, there are some pretty significant racial boundaries, and I really believe if we have enough time to vet this program out, it will start to erase those lines. I believe that's the calling whether you run the PAC, or you're a patron of the arts: you've got to make sure that people are coming together for the good of humankind.
What is your vision for the future of the Orbit Initiative and the arts in Tulsa more generally?
Stevens: We have great plans for the future. We haven't decided yet, but what I'm hoping for next year is that we do another adaptation that's previously been done, except I'd like to take it on tour instead of being in the Chapman. If people are still hesitant to participate in a program at the PAC for any reason, then I haven't done my job. I have to find a way. We have to be creative and we can't think inside the box.
What I want more than anything is for that shared experience between the 92-year-old and the 4-year-old to be uniquely theirs. And if that happens throughout the population who is here rehearsing and performing, that would be fantastic. It is really celebrating that experience... you want that feeling of family and belonging and this just happens to be a really great way for everyone to get to experience it. These are our neighbors, and part of me knows that breaking down that obstacle on stage where people are afraid to talk to each other - if they're not afraid to do that here, maybe they'll go back to their neighborhood and meet that neighbor that just moved in across the street that they haven't spoken to. There's this whole idea of paying it forward - kind, generous, and brave - if we can use those words as models for behavior, when we're rehearsing and running the show, we're going to use that and go back to our communities and live by those words as well.