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At 20, Clearwater native Vinny Ortega is running a theater company in New York

Vinny Ortega is a 2013 Gibbs High School grad who is using theater to change the world. 

courtesy of Vinny Ortega


Clearwater native Vinny Ortega performs in No Entiendo, a play he co-wrote about a teenage immigrant from Mexico.
Vinny Ortega is a 2013 Gibbs High School grad who is using theater to change the world. courtesy of Vinny Ortega Clearwater native Vinny Ortega performs in No Entiendo, a play he co-wrote about a teenage immigrant from Mexico.
Published Jul. 29, 2015

NEW YORK

As directors met for the first time to kick off a theater festival in June, an organizer approached a fresh-faced teenager in their midst.

In so many words, the man asked Vinny Ortega, of Clearwater, what he was doing there.

"Is your director here?" the stranger asked. "Are you an intern?"

Ortega, then 19, replied that he was the director of Hopeless, a one-act play about inner-city adolescents, as well as its playwright.

The festival official sheepishly explained that Ortega, a 2013 graduate of the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High, was younger than he expected. He was far from the first to make that mistake.

"It doesn't help that I look even younger than I am," said Ortega, who has since turned 20. The next youngest person in the room was around 30.

Ortega stands out in other ways. A junior at Pace University in New York City, he already has co-founded a theater company. The Dare Tactic, launched in 2014 with grant funding that Ortega secured, exists to produce and perform plays he writes, which so far have all come with a strong social message.

Hopeless tackles teen pregnancy, abortion and gun violence. More Than Just Skin, which Ortega's company performed in February at New York's Poetic License Festival, is in part the result of his experience growing up in the United States, the son of immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua.

"My brother is very pale, I am dark," Ortega said. "There are shades of colonialism even within the Latino community. I faced so much colorism.

"Then you go into the world and you are confused. Why are you being followed in the store and they are not following your brother because he is a lighter shade and can pass for white?"

Ortega has confronted those kinds of questions head on, as president of his high school's multicultural society and in his plays.

In his senior year, he was accepted into the Bank of America Student Leaders Program, a summer internship he spent at the David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. The program taught him grant writing, networking and fundraising.

Now midway through college, he feels as though the threads of his life are coming together in a purposeful way.

At Pace, Ortega directed a project about the Columbine massacre. Gathering Sparks created its message without a single editorial line by its student creators. Instead, the team pored over news articles about the 1999 murders of 12 students and one teacher by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They read journals, interviewed victims' family members and reviewed security footage of the shootings.

"Usually I take a very strong point of view," said Ortega. "Here I said, 'We're not putting our point of view on it, we're just laying it out word for word.' "

Ortega said he has lost at least four extended family members to gun violence in Honduras, and the Columbine story hit close to home. He looked forward to presenting it before an audience in Bangkok, Thailand.

To his surprise, he said, most of the 200 people in the audience had not heard of Columbine. Many laughed seeing a character wearing a trench coat and being bullied.

"They were shocked when they actually started shooting," Ortega said. "They thought this was a comedic character and they didn't understand why this character was shooting up the school."

With so much accomplished, it might seem natural to ask Ortega what he plans to do after college. It's a question he has heard before — and he's ready for it.

"People think college is this incubator, you do your thing there," he said. "My career has already started. I am the sitting artistic director of a nonprofit theater company. I'm developing it, so that when I get out it will be even bigger. I am just going to be doing more theater and telling more stories."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.