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Shelter from the storm

‘The Tempest’ is the free theater experience Tulsa needs now

Theater novices and veterans rehearse for an upcoming performance of a musical version of ‘The Tempest.’

Greg Bollinger

Last summer, Jeremy Stevens, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center’s education and development director, went to New York City to talk with the staff of the Public Theater, whose revolutionary Public Works program would be the basis for the Orbit Initiative, a new project from the PAC and the Tulsa PAC Trust. The Public Theater’s legendary director, Oskar Eustis, said to Stevens: “I don’t know a lot about Tulsa, but I know you’ve been in the news for the wrong reasons. You need to do The Tempest.”

After living under tornado threats and flood waters for way too much of the past month, this is a community that understands a tempest. But the link for us goes further back than this. There are storms that last for days, and storms that last for generations.

From the Tulsa Race Massacre to the slow grind of gentrification, the harm wreaked on communities of color and other marginalized groups throughout this city’s history is finally being acknowledged by a few more folks with power and privilege. The chronic effect of centuries-long devastation demands a new kind of thinking about access, opportunity, and what community looks like as lived reality rather than a buzzword in a grant proposal.

We won’t be the last to ask how to change our ways. And we certainly aren’t the first. It was 1611 when Shakespeare wrote his play about chaos, revenge, betrayal, love and shipwreck. It’s about the fear and isolation of the Other, about transformation and forgiveness and repair.

On June 8 and 9, 200 Tulsans—from veteran performers to absolute newcomers from all the city’s compass points, aged five to 92—will come together onstage at the city’s most prestigious theater to perform a musical version of The Tempest, adapted from Shakespeare by Public Theater’s Lear deBessonet, with live music (Jamaican, Mexican, country and more) played by an onstage band conducted by Stevens, under the direction of Theatre Tulsa’s Sara Phoenix, with Tony Award-winner Faith Prince as guest director.

Bringing all of Tulsa, tempest-tossed, to see that it has a home at the PAC is the dream of the Orbit Initiative, one of a handful of national affiliates of the Public Works program. Putting on a show like this—by and for all the city’s people, many of whom have never set foot in the PAC—is an impressive achievement. But it’s not remotely as impressive as the adventure of getting there together.

Starting last fall, seven organizations—Dennis R. Neill Equality Center, Eastside Senior Center, Ellen Ochoa Elementary, Greenwood Cultural Center, Hicks Park Community Center, Tulsa School of Arts & Sciences, and Solid Foundation Preparatory Academy/Latimer-Cooksey Cultural Arts Foundation—became satellite sites for Orbit Adventures, twice-monthly classes in everything from acting to bucket drumming, open to everyone free of charge. Led by some of Tulsa’s most accomplished artists, these adventures asked what people wanted and gave them the chance to build on that.

“We teach our classes with three words in mind: kind, generous, and brave,” Stevens said. “All three of those words require some sort of sacrifice. Those words reflect how we should be living every day. If we can model those values in this process, what we’re really saying is: Welcome to our family, number one; and number two, you belong. That’s what this is designed to do—wake up the community and say, ‘This is what you can be doing, and here’s how we can do this together.

“At no point is this ‘Let us come into your community and help you,’” he emphasized. “We want none of that. Instead we’re saying, ‘If you’re willing to tell us what you want, we’ll work together to help you achieve it.’ The idea is to remove obstacles that have limited participation in the creation of art. Then extend those rights and opportunities to anyone who wants it.”

For Phoenix, the power of this project is partnering with “cameo groups” like the Wise Moves Dance Academy with its majorette dancers from far North Tulsa, whose director told her that downtown doesn’t even seem like part of her city. It’s getting some scooters up onstage for a group of kids who had a ton of energy they weren’t sure what to do with in a performance. It’s bringing in food during rehearsals and organizing shuttles to and from the PAC. It’s that 92-year-old woman who told Stevens she’d never done anything like this before, and now she doesn’t ever want to stop.

“I don’t know where else in the community this happens,” Phoenix said. “This multigenerational project, from all over the city, all different backgrounds and beliefs. It’s like a traditional pageant. This is community theater, not in its most basic form, but in its most sophisticated form.”

The Tempest is free to attend, though tickets must be reserved in advance. (The PAC has waived all fees for online purchase.) And this is only the beginning: Orbit Adventures resume in August.

The Tempest
June 8 at 7 p.m., June 9 at 2 p.m.
Chapman Music Hall, Tulsa Performing Arts Center
Click here for tickets.

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