“I’ve never felt like an artist,” says Tara Ochs. “Up until now, I’ve always felt like an entertainer.”
After graduating from Florida State University in theatre, Ochs moved to Atlanta and was part of the early years at Dad’s Garage. Later, she worked in Hollywood for a decade as an actress. One time, a Harley Davidson commercial paid her rent for a year, and all viewers saw was her silhouette. Most recently, she’s returned to Atlanta for a more stable and affordable life as a performer. Here, she keeps a steady hustle of gigs: a commercial for Aaron’s, Inc., teaching improv at Dad’s Garage, table-reads for TV shows, voiceovers for regional radio spot, quite a few projects she can’t discuss details on, and a run of Christmas shows at Agatha’s A Taste of Mystery in downtown Atlanta. You might of even seen her in the movie Selma as civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo. But until now, Ochs never considered herself to be a capital-A artist.
Recently, Ochs was awarded a 2015 Idea Capital Grant to pursue the creation of a one-woman stage show, “White Woman in Progress,” about the life of Viola Liuzzo, inspired by her filmic portrayal of the activist. An unlikely civil rights activist, Liuzzo was a white woman with children who hailed from Detroit — though spent her childhood in Tennessee, where she experienced the segregated South firsthand — who felt the need to join the Selma to Montgomery marches in the fight for equality.
The experience of playing Liuzzo was transformative for Och’s life and career. Shooting the film in Alabama, meeting Liuzzo’s family, and returning to Selma to work with students have connected Ochs deeply to this narrative. She found support in Heidi Howard, artistic director at 7 Stages Theatre, to pursue a show about Liuzzo, and encouraged her to seek funding for the project, specifically, an Idea Capital Grant.
“Part of the last few years of my work is realizing my social responsibility,” says Ochs. This realization is indicative of how she’s changed from solely being an entertainer to being an artist.
Ochs’s interests go beyond simply writing and performing in a one-woman show. She brings with her a larger vision of the philosophy of nonviolence, learned and galvanized by working on Selma. The Idea Capital Grant will help her travel to Selma to take a summer workshop on nonviolence, which will inform the creation of her show. Yet, Ochs brings an even bigger vision to this project: She hopes to use this project as a springboard to teach nonviolence to today’s school children (which incidentally, coincides with her skills teaching improv). Perhaps eventually, “White Woman in Progress” could go on tour, with Ochs leading workshops that complement her performances. There’s a lot of possibility here, which is precisely why Idea Capital funded Ochs; the Atlanta-based organization supports projects in their early stages, setting artists in motion for future success.
“White Woman in Progress” is a gamble for both Ochs and Idea Capital: Ochs admittedly has never written or performed a one-woman show, while Idea Capital has never funded actors pursuing creative works. The fresh take on nonviolence, using art to transcend racism, and a strong historic basis set this project apart as something very special.
“It’s a great way to introduce Dr. King’s ideas to a new audience,” says Ochs. “As well as connect people to the story of Viola Liuzzo.”
Ochs admits this is not going to be the definitive story on Liuzzo (there’s already a pretty good documentary, Home of the Brave, available to watch), instead it’ll demonstrate how Ochs herself has changed since portraying Liuzzo. The performance will alternate between 1965 and today, and sets out to clear up any misinformation about Liuzzo. As part of the civil rights movement, Liuzzo faced smear campaigns that altered her recorded history. Using Liuzzo’s five living children as sources, Ochs aims to piece together an honest representation of Viola Liuzzo.
Ochs has uncovered several parallels between nonviolence and improv that she will use to spread her message. “Nonacceptance is suffering. To resist is to suffer,” she says. “To allow other’s ideas to flourish is to succeed. We resolve conflict when we use everyone’s ideas to make something better. We can only create new things if we are working together.”This kind of collaboration is at the heart of improv, as well as trends inherent in socially engaged art.
Ochs wants to teach kids to “yes, and…” their way to a better future. “When you use nonviolence, you face a lot of no’s,” says Ochs, “and for kids living on the fringes, life is full of no’s. These kids are the greatest improvisers. When people are told ‘yes,’ they are inspired. It moves them.”
And this is a main reason as to why Idea Capital said “yes” to the “White Woman in Progress” project: to inspire Tara Ochs, supporting her transition into becoming an artist that, in turn, will teach and inspire others, changing one little bit of the world for the better.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues. He was a participant in Cycle 2 of BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program.