Stories of Lost 49: OrangeAve Project Builds Historical Archive to Build Art that Never Forgets

“We can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond.”

I remember June 12th better than a lot of dates when I was in college. Over the summer I would always still be on campus finishing up classes, helping LGBTQ and student groups on my campus getting ready for the new year. They were always a blur; studying public relations and quizzes, working at our campus theatre, everything was so normal and usual until that Sunday. I remember seeing something on the news as I was headed out the door but I paid it no mind, another shooting another day in America, I started to see notifications on my phone but I drove straight to campus to begin studying. A friend of mine, Mary Aab from our local LGBT Center called me and asked me if I’d seen the news, I said I’d heard things but didn’t know it had to do with our community. She asked if I could meet her at Starbucks to talk about what we should do, she said after I read the stories and turned on the news I would understand and meet her.

I couldn’t understand why it hit me so hard. I went home, and I couldn’t describe how I felt to anyone who asked. I curled up in bed, a body pillow against me, but I didn’t cry. I couldn’t cry. My Southern family heritage has always made it hard for me to grieve out loud, but why did I feel this way? I didn’t know these people who were lost, I didn’t know their families, how could I be so selfish to feel so hurt and attacked when these people in Orlando needed support? When I finally got a chance to share my words at a vigil event on our campus, I thought it would be political and supportive, everything that needed to be said by a good Queer Activist. But I lost it. I cried, I choked words past my swelling throat, I yelled, I used that podium like a pulpit to preach how hard this fear, terror, sorrow, and pain was affected my Queer identity. I thought it was the most selfish act, until I saw others crying and others echoing the same feelings. I knew then that this affected our whole community, in a way that we all felt affected, and I knew then that all of our community needed to be a part of this. Not to be selfish, but to show and hug the families and friends of those who were affected and let them know that this grief echoed and was heard.

From a young age, I was inspired by The Laramie Project, its honest use of testimonies by people has long inspired me to understand what art can really do in the way of change. It was the first time I read a theatrical body of work that ever represented an LGBTQ narrative. For a young queer man coming out in high school, with a love of theatre, that visibility was one of the strongest cornerstones of my life. Getting to direct the show, getting to listen and research and find pride in such a dark corner of our community’s history…it launched my journey to activism, theatre, and unifying the two. Not only did The Laramie Project create a beautiful show, it recorded stories and pieces of honest history that have never been forgotten by our community, and that is what I knew I wanted to do with The Orange Ave Project.

The Orange Ave Project is an ethnographic collaborative arts initiative that seeks to create an everlasting archive of accounts and stories from those affected by the Pulse Tragedy to be annually produced in a new devised performance art piece through collaboration with organizations and artists across the country. Through grassroots funding, and sponsorships from LGBTQ organizations and groups nationwide, we hope to create a living archive that will be able to tell a new story about the Orlando community every year based on the changing stories, narratives, and people willing to come forth about their experience regarding Pulse. Using artistic workshop outlines, anonymous interview transcriptions, and a detailed vetting process for artists, performance art groups, and organizations across the country; The Orange Ave Project will work to ensure that the stories of the 49 lost victims and the Orlando community are shared with artists across the country and immortalized in the passionate artwork of artists from all walks of life. It is through this, that artists across the country will be able to listen, interpret, and reflect the emotions of the stories they hear in a way that tells Orlando: ‘we are listening to your stories, we are sharing our art with your story, and we will never forget what happened here.’

In just the first two weeks of interviews, the project has collected interviews with over 70 different people and collected over 100 hours of documented content. This material, combined with one more interview trip in August, will make the compendium of the first year’s archive which will create the first Orange Ave Project performance to be presented as part of the second-year remembrance in June of 2018. From there on the project will continue to conduct interviews year after year, adding at least 30 new people and 30 returning interviews with previously met contacts to continuing adding hours of content and new interviews to the growing archive of stories that will be given life and light in the form of art in the years to come. Even a year to five years after a tragedy like Pulse, new stories and people come to light willing to share their stories in order to grieve and remember their lost loved ones. We want to be an eternal archive so that people, no matter their stage in the grief process or in discussing Pulse, will always be able to share their story in a way that is immortalized and remembered through art.

For me, this has been a catharsis, and a responsibility I have as a Queer youth in America that can document moments of our Queer history vividly and critically. One of our interviewees, Nancy Rosado, said “it is y(our) generation that will begin to document Queer history” and she’s right, it is finally a time where these moments can be documented and recorded accurately instead of forgotten or sullied by our country’s willingness to erase the narratives of the Queer community and Communities of color. Five to ten years down the road, it is my hope that this project will have collected over 300 interviews and more than 500 hours of recorded words and only continue to grow; along with 10 adaptations of this material produced, published, and shared with the world. I personally believe that artists have a unique talent for documenting, reflecting, and reliving history in a way that our world is able to strongly experience, empathize with, and remember. So if The Orange Ave Project can provide an outlet so that every story is heard, and documented, then I can have faith that art has once again allowed something beautiful, new, and everlasting to evolve and grow out of the tragedy that was Pulse…much like The Laramie Project and the good it brought following Matthew Shepard’s passing.

About the Author:

Connor Norton is a long-time ‘artivist’ having dedicated most of his career thus far to art for the sake of social activism and change. His work began in high school when he directed “The Laramie Project” with his mentor turned artistic partner Ricardo Melendez. Since then, he has done works to benefit associations like The Young Women’s Christian Association, Access AIDS Care and The LGBT Center of Hampton Roads, The Ali Forney Center, The American Foundation for Equal Rights, and many more. Connor completed his B.A. in Theatre and Women & Gender Theory with a minor in Business Administration from Old Dominion University. He currently serves as Company Manager for Virginia Stage Company and is an artist in residence at The Zeiders American Dream Theatre. You can learn more about “Orange Ave. Project” and donate to Connor’s GoFundMe here.