"What makes us different is what makes us better."
These are the words of Jeremy Stevens, the Education and Development Coordinator at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, who sat down to speak with me last week about the brand new Orbit Initiative, which launched this year. The program is based on a model originally conceived by the Public Theater in NYC and follows suit of other Public Works projects across the nation, form the Seattle Repertory Theatre to Theatre Under the Stars in Houston. The Orbit Initiative is an ambitious constellation of programs spread out across Tulsa dedicated to helping the city celebrate its diferences through theatre and the arts. According the Stevens, the main words of the Orbit Initiative are "kind", "generous," and "brave." He believes that these words encapsulate the Initiative's commitment to embracing the discomfort of difference and using this vulnerability to create meaningful art.
The Orbit Initiative is preicated on the idea that theatre and artistic expression should be "by, of and for all people." The classes offered by the Orbit Initiative are call "satellite adventures." - a nickname in prfect alignment with the space theme - and are hosted by the Initiative's many community partners, which include but are not limited to the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, The Greenwood Cultural Center, and the Hicks Park Community Center. All adventures are open to anyone at any age, and they are taught by "Artist Educators" in the community. The content of the classes is chosen by popular demand, and while acting is the most popular selection, other options include dance/movement, visual art and even puppetry.
The Orbit Initiative seeks to extend its reach beyond downtown and the individuals who already see themselves as being part of the theatre community. Jeremy Stevens describes Tulsa as "a town that's been divded for years based on our inability to be uncomfortable" and he believes that the Initiative will help bring communities together and embrace this productive discomfort. Stevens fears that too many Tulsans view theatre as an elitist pursuit and that the Performing Arts Center is sometimes seen as an "ivory palace" that only admits cetain members of the community. He wants the Initiative to truly and literally embody the PAC Trust's mission, which states that the space should be "everyone's place."
Stevens wants to make this a reality by launching the Initiative "with gusto and passion so it's undeniable." Indeed, the Orbit Initiative's "adventures" are grounded in enthusiasm rather than didacticism: Stevens described the Orbit experience as more collaborative than instructive, with a greater focus on removing obstacles to participation than churning out the next generation of Broadway talent. The Artist Educators enter communities to truly meet people where they are and building community across lines of race, gender, age, and ability.
The Orbit Initiative will "crescendo towards" a large-scale adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest on June 8th & 9th on the Chapman Stage at the TPAC. The performance is not the culmination of the Initiative, as it is designed to be a year-round fixture in the community, but will provide a community-wide finale to its first year. Stevens selected this particular production because he believes that "Tulsa is experiencing its own storm in a sense - and people going through their own storm are the ones we want telling the stories."
The show will include 14 songs and cameo appearances from the community and will be cast with both professional actors and participants in the Initiative who may never have performed on stage before. In fact, everyone in Orbit's "adventures" wil be invited to participate as part of the community ensemble, and tickets will be free to anyone who wishes to attend. For Stevens, this is all about removing barriers of access and making the experience of producing and seeing theatre more possible for all Tulsans.
Ultimately, the Orbit Initiative is designed to allow people - real Tulsans - to tell their stories and grow closer together through the process of storytelling. Stevens hopes that through empowering people to tell their stories, Tulsa will become a kinder, braver, and more generous place to live.
- by Dara Homer