Cayli Caruso, 19, is a participant in Project Shattered Silence.
CLEARWATER – Parents of teenagers know it is tough to get them to open up at the best of times, never mind share their innermost thoughts and feelings. Yet Jared O’Roark has been getting teenagers to open up for the past five years. It is a project he calls Shattered Silence.
O’Roark is the Creative Director at Ruth Eckerd Hall and he began Project Shattered Silence in 2010. It began because he had nothing else to do.
“I was bored, I wanted to create something new and I’m a big fan of collaboration,” O’Roark said. “I had these kids that I was teaching and we created a play every year, we created characters for the play, except one girl, Alexa Perez, couldn’t come up with a character so I had her tell a story. She told us of how her grandmother and grandfather met, and then she encompassed the whole family, three generations. I said wow, let’s do that.”
So Project Shattered Silence was born. He had the teenagers openly speak of their lives, their thoughts and their fears.
“One girl told us of her concern with her body. She was a large size,” O’Roark said. “I asked her if she would openly talk about it, she said yes. I kind of call this reality theater. We’re in the age of YouTube and Facebook and we’re taking those elements and putting (them) into a theatrical setting.”
Among the teens sharing their lives on stage is 19-year-old Cayli Caruso of Palm Harbor. She’s a student of Theater and English at New College of Florida in Sarasota. She says opening up was tough.
“The first time you have to open up is hard because you are saying things you would never in a million years say out loud,” she said. “But the more you talk, the easier it is and then you take pride in what you are doing.”
Caruso says her story is essentially no different than any teenager’s, yet it is unique in many ways.
“My story is just coming to terms with who you are and embracing the things that you love and what makes you special as an individual,” she said. “I really didn’t think I was different, I was just like every other kid but then you realize you have had different experiences.”
She said she realized her story was hitting home when a member of the audience one evening, an adult, came to her after a performance.
“He said he experienced the same thing as I just talked about and he now knows it is OK,” she said. “He had grown up doing nerdy things, playing video games by himself, not wanting anyone else to know what he was doing. Well I did the same thing, but I talked about it; something as small and as insignificant as that had an impact.”
Makenzie Degenhardt, 18, of Safety Harbor is a senior at Countryside High School. She’s been participating in Project Shattered Silence since she was 14. She says she got involved because of her friends.
“The original show was in 2010 and I knew half the cast so I came to support my friends and I fell in love with it immediately,” she said. “I was only 14 and you had to be 15 to join, but Jared let me in early and I stayed committed.”
Degenhardt said it was unsettling the first time she shared herself with the audience.
“I never really had a big scary, oh-my-gosh, moment, but it is scary for people who don’t like to share a lot like myself,” she said. “You would be surprised at how many things you relate to. A girl last year came from Cuba and her story about how she got from there to where she is today is overwhelming. It is inspiring.”
O’Roark says he calls Shattered Silence a project rather than a performance or a program because it is not meant to help anything in any way.
“A program is to bring something forward and fix it,” he said. “A project is to create something original. They are all telling their own personal stories, they are shattering the silence. The point of it is because we are afraid to be seen as weak by speaking out so we keep things inside. It means we are going to put it out there and it is strong. They are saying I’m willing to take the risk that you might judge me. We recently had a girl who had a friend who committed suicide. She talked about it because she was comfortable.”
O’Roark says he always gets the parents’ permission before letting such sensitive subjects take the stage, and he says he always gets that permission, which he says is a surprise to him.
“I think parents know their child needs to talk and they want their kids to be somewhere where they feel safe, we provide that atmosphere here,” he said.
Project Shattered Silence has been on stage for five years and there has been plenty of reaction according to O’Roark.
“The feedback comes more from the adults than the teenagers,” he said. “It is overwhelming. Almost 90 percent of the feedback we get is from adults, and it is all positive. If there is anything negative out there, I haven’t heard it. Almost all the comments are about how one kid’s story affected them. I’ve had adults come to me asking that I tell one of our participants how their story touched them personally.”
The most recent staging of Project Shattered Silence was at the Capitol Theater on Jan. 10. Part of that performance was videoed by WEDU-TV, Channel 3, which is planning a documentary on the project. That documentary will be aired on WEDU Jan. 30 at 9 p.m.