‘Project: Shattered Silence’ gives students powerful opportunity to share personal stories on stage
Teenagers perform on stage in the latest production of “Project: Shattered Silence.” This photo, and the others in this story, were published with permission from Jared O’Roark.
By Megy Karydes
Megy is an Images & Voices of Hope freelancer who lives in Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter at @Megy.
Celebrating its fifth year this June, “Project: Shattered Silence” exposes difficult truths by giving a voice to those who often feel unheard: teenagers.
Over the course of five years (and six shows), about 119 teenagers from the Tampa Bay, Florida, area have participated in the project, which was created by artistic director Jared O’Roark. He leads teens through a 10-month journey that culminates in an original performance where typically taboo topics such as cutting, sexual assault, and bullying are shared in front of 200 audience members.
The teenagers’ stories reflect universal truths we can all relate to in some way. Though painful, many of the stories ultimately convey hope, recovery and resilience. Those that do are Restorative Narratives — pieces that show how people have recovered and rebuilt their lives after experiencing difficult times.
O’Roark came up with the idea for “Project: Shattered Silence” five years ago. He had been working at Ruth Eckerd Hall — a performing arts center and the production’s home — and was itching to do something original. Since he created the project, interest in it has grown considerably.
“The first year was the only year I had to recruit kids,” O’Roark said in a phone interview with ivoh. “The first year, I asked them to come up with their own stories by filling out a survey of questions.” After hearing their responses, O’Roark quickly realized that the most powerful stories were the ones that the teens had experienced firsthand. “Those hit home the hardest,” he said.
O’Roark and those first students regrouped and began writing their original pieces. “Our goal is to let people know that our stories may be different, but our feelings are the same,” he said. “We take personal stories and we put them to the stage.”
Jenna Yates is one of the teens who has participated in the performance. She started self-harming half-way through her sophomore year in high school and remembers thinking: “I am worthless. I am ugly. I am stupid. I want it all to end.”
She signed up for the performance around the time that her depression was worsening. In an email interview, she said she thought at the time: “‘Hey, why don’t I share my story? It could help because I have a sort of hero complex where I have to be helping and useful all the time.”
Yates’ story was different. In a documentary produced by the local PBS affiliate WEDU, O’Roark admits he wasn’t familiar with some of the issues she was facing, such as cutting, self-harming and gender identity.
Each year, it’s estimated that one in five females engage in self-injury, including cutting. Yates’ story might be different, but she’s hardly alone.
“I was pretty quiet” and anxious, Yates said. “No one had ever talked about being genderqueer on the show before. In fact, no one had ever really talked about their gender identity at all.”
Slowly, though, she worked up the courage to share her story. Yates typed out her answers to the survey O’Roark gave her, answering questions about what she thought of herself, how she identified herself in terms of her gender and sexual identity, and who she felt she was.
“Jared read all of it and came up with a way to script it, supplemented by discussions in the group,” Yates said. “Really, I can’t take any credit for this. Jared is a genius who took something that I still struggle to put to words and made it beautiful.”
O’Roark reads over the survey topics and answers with each student individually at first.
“There are several times, where I see in their eyes, they’re not ready,” O’Roark says in the documentary. “It’s too painful. Theater comes second. This really isn’t a theater piece as much as it is a person piece. So I start with the person and then I go to the theater.” In one case, a teenager contemplated sharing a story about his parents’ divorce during the performance. O’Roark could tell he wasn’t ready to share his story publicly, though, so they chose another topic instead.
Throughout the 10 months leading up to the latest performance, O’Roark regularly checked in with the students to make sure they were still comfortable sharing their stories.
The teenagers’ parents have to approve of the stories their children share, according to O’Roark. In some cases, the parents become active participants.
“This is not a Jerry Springer reveal,” O’Roark said. “The kids who are cutting, they’re not the only ones going through this emotional breakdown. Parents are going through this, too. We wanted to show that you’re not going through this alone.”
Just as the kids are working through the performance, so are the parents.
“I cannot tell you how difficult it was to realize that Jenna’s piece was going to put it all out there for the world to see,” Missy Yates, Jenna’s mother, said via email. “However, as a parent, you will do anything for your child to begin to heal from something like a mental illness.”
Missy Yates noticed that while practicing for “Project: Shattered Silence,” Jenna started to bond with others, make friends, and feel like she belonged.
“This was a feeling she had been missing for a very long time,” Missy Yates said. “Jenna struggled along the way with her anxieties, but she was well cared for by Jared and a few of the teens who had taken her under their wings. One teen in particular, Jake Kingsley, became almost like a big brother. He is now considered to be a part of the Yates family. Throughout the 10 months of rehearsals and writings and such, we watched Jenna slowly become more confident in her abilities to overcome some of her struggles.”
Yates said performing on stage was surreal. “Partly, I was terrified due to my social anxiety, but mostly I felt strong and incredibly proud of myself for doing something I had never even dreamed of doing,” she said. “After, I felt as though this huge weight was off my shoulders.”
O’Roark said he can tell the performance has an impact on the teens who participate. “The response I get from the kids mostly is that it feels like they did something good,” he said. “They felt like they helped people.”
The performances, he said, sometimes lead to greater dialogue between the teenagers who take part and their parents. They also effect those in the audience.
“I know that many audience members as well have talked to their kids when they get home,” O’Roark said. “I get to watch them before the show and in the lobby, and it is incredible how many teens come to see the show, and then they bring their parents back with them a second time. These are the topics they want to talk about but don’t feel comfortable [talking about]. When they leave the show … they talk about some of the things brought up. That, to me, is what is incredible. The teens on stage opened up, but their honesty helped others open up.”
O’Roark will talk more about his work, and lead a master storytelling class for youth, at ivoh’s summit in upstate New York this June. We encourage you to register for the summit, which is focused on Restorative Narratives.