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Puppets For The People, Theatre as Healer

Puppets For The People, Theatre as Healer

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

 

Puppets For The People is a workshop that uses puppet building as a healing tool. As a theatre artist and drama therapist, I developed this creative and therapeutic puppet-making workshop where participants learn how to build a puppet using simple materials and then bring it to life.

 

This puppet workshop developed out of my search for cultural competence. I wanted the people I was working with to feel free to express rage, sorrow, and desire without feeling the oppression of having to communicate in languages of privilege- including the languages of theatre, movement or performance, I soon discovered that building the puppets in this way allowed each participant to make something deeply and uniquely his/her own. The expression of the puppet’s voice that followed the actual creation seemed much fuller and freer than other theatre or drama therapy tools I had tried .

 

Building these simple puppets for the healing of trauma in polarized communities, zones of conflict, with children, incarcerated women, in domestic violence shelter, in refugee camps, as well as in theatre departments and has proven to be very effective as means of inspiring free expression. The workshops have also been effective in part of training programs for drama therapists, Theatre of the Oppressed practitioners, theatre artists and human rights workers.

 

These puppet-building workshops have been done in in Palestine, India, Lebanon, all over Europe and the U.S. This unique form of puppet building allows participants to freely and deeply expresses themselves with hands, heart, body and voice.

 

I begin by building community and safe space before we construct the puppets. I will usually set up the supplies in a circle prior to participants entering the space, to uphold the ritual and beauty of the raw materials.

 

Then a warm up and a guided meditation serves to provide the participants with a context for their experience and helps participants choose something they want to bring into their lives (safety, forgiveness, love etc.) Each person discovers what sort of being s/he wants to create. Some examples, a family member or friend, an imaginary figure,  a heroic person, a joker, a villain or a victim, an oppressor, oppressed, bystander, or ally, animal or alien or human. Then we build the “brain” of the puppet; workshop participants use objects, pens, paint, and paper to draw and/or write the secrets, wishes, dreams sometimes including meaningful objects. This creation becomes the actual core of the puppet head or “brain.” After building this inner life for the puppet, the heads and faces are formed around the brain with newspaper. We find the face in the paper, and hold and mold the face with masking tape. The heads are then filled with the secrets, wishes, dreams by way of drawings and/or meaningful objects. Then we cover the brain in newspaper and begin to build the head,  finding the face of the puppet in the newspaper as we go. I ask people to remember what they’ve put into the brain as they build, letting those thoughts and feelings inform their fingers as they shape the face and head. We hold and mold the face with masking tape, covering every inch of it with the “skin” of tape.


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Then the faces are decorated with paint, yarn, and all kinds of objects and art supplies such as feathers, buttons, beads, and ribbons, that help bring the puppet maker’s vision to full life. If it is a short workshop we finish with the heads. If the workshop is longer we build bodies onto the heads of the puppets using a wire hanger as a frame and then more newspaper and tape, clothing, fabric to build out the body. As the puppet builders create their puppets I ask them to hear the voice of the puppets.

 

The puppet is mounted on a stick or dowel that the puppeteer operates with one hand. One arm of the puppet is built out, while the other is left open – with a hole in the fabric of the puppet’s clothing the puppeteer can use one of her/his arms to express gesture and animate the puppet with even more life. These puppets work best in performance  when the puppeteers use their own bodies and voices in concert/collaboration with the puppets.

 

This section of the workshops culminates with introductions. Finally, the participants become puppeteers, moving through space with their creations and embodying the personalities and the voices by introducing their creatures to the other puppets in the room.  I tell participants that their numbers will double by the end of the workshop- if I start with 10 participants there will be 20 of us in the room by the end of the workshop. Because we work so deeply from the brain outward, the connection between puppets and puppeteers is quite profound.

 

In a longer workshop, the puppeteers write short plays for the puppets and perform small shows with their new creations.

 

All participant’s experience, heritage, beliefs, age, ethnicity, gender, orientation and dis/abilities are celebrated in this process. Puppets can go to the depths of conflict transformation in ways human actors cannot. Like mask work, puppet work allows people to distance themselves from conflict and therefore find a way through it. Puppets can surprisingly solve problems that their human counterparts cannot. I hope this blog will offer a context to this work within the field of performance and peace building and then, working with the workshops as medium, discover the theories that support the practice.  It is my goal to create sacred zones of respect and community, while encouraging true expression with courageous generosity.


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Jessica Litwak is an Internationally recognized theatre educator, playwright, director, performer, puppet builder and drama therapist. She is the Artistic Director of The H.E.A.T. Collective and The New Generation Theatre Ensemble for Youth, and the founder of Artists Rise Up New York. Her plays include The Emma Goldman Trilogy, Wider Than The Sky, the FEAR Project, Secret Agents and My Heart is in the East. Her work is published by No Passport Press, Smith & Krause, Applause Books and The New York Times. Litwak is a core member of Theatre Without Borders, a PhD in Theatre For Social Change, and a Fulbright Scholar.

September Writers

September Writers

As a new month begins, The H.E.A.T. Collective is excited to welcome our four community blog contributors. This September look forward to posts from Jessica Litwak: Founder and Artistic Director of The H.E.A.T. Collective, David Diamond: an artist, activist, and career coach for theatre artists, Sue Hamilton: a master acting teacher, and Katie Pearl: a theatre artist and activist. Thank you all for your continued engagement with this wonderful work, and remember to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for blog post notifications!

August Wrap Up

August Wrap Up

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

 

As we continue to break down the components of The H.E.A.T. Collective in our monthly Blog series (Healing one week, Education the next, Activism the third week and Theatre the fourth) we welcome your comments and your assistance in our ongoing discussion.

This month we had four wonderful posts from expert practitioners in the field.

Sally Bailey, a wonderful master drama therapist and my teacher wrote about the healing benefits of theatre for audiences and artists alike. : “Our mirror neuron system, coupled with our sensory-motor-language systems in the brain, allow everyone watching the performance to unconsciously simulate the performed actions and words of the play. Audience members aren’t passively receiving a story second-hand. They are feeling the emotions of the actors and bodily understanding what they do. This means the actors are literally passing the story on into the bodies, hearts, and minds of those watching.”

Meggan Gomez, a brilliant colleague and theatre educator who I was lucky enough to visit at The Working Classroom in New Mexico wrote” We can all be better students. And teachers. And people. It takes listening, humility, and the understanding that you always have more to learn. These ideas are at the core of our values at Working Classroom, a 30-year-old arts, theater, and new media non-profit in Albuquerque, NM that cultivates the artistic, civic, and academic minds of youth through in-depth arts projects with contemporary artists to amplify historically ignored voices, resist systemic injustices, and imagine a more equitable society……… We do this because we know young people can be fantastic leaders, create stunning art work, and they also have a lot to say about the state of the world. We don't need to empower them, they are great at that on their own. We just need to provide the resources and stay in dialogue with each other. “

My dear friend and colleague Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn works in the deepest conflict zones with the most challenging human struggles imaginable. He uses theatre as activism to move societies towards justice and to serve communities wounded by oppression and colonization. In our August blog series he told a difficult story about the power of theatre to activate heroism in human beings in the most unbearable circumstances:  “We finished our rehearsal in high spirits, getting ready to spend the evening with friends and families, trying to enjoy life in the midst of an otherwise increasingly unbearable overall context, haunted by 40 years of war and human cruelty. Then someone’s phone rang. Boom. We were told that a suicide blast had just happened right in the neighborhood where most of the performers, their families and many of our friends live. The room went chokingly silent. The first ambulances could be heard. The smell in our rehearsal space suddenly took on the stench of burnt human flesh. The line between joy and anguish is seamless in a place of war. Theatre of the Absurd. What happens in the following 24 hours is the Afghan version of Audre Lorde’s “transformation of silence into language and action.” Together with other colleagues and comrades, those who until just a few moments ago rehearsed collaboration and solidarity on the stage are now exhibiting the same qualities as part of an all-out, collective emergency response to aid the victims and their families. “

In the final week of our series, the awesome H.E.A.T. staffers Rebecca-Anne Whittaker and Brooke Schilling co-wrote a report on two theatre events that H.E.A.T. held this month, the Terrible Virtue Pot Luck Dinner and the Structural Compositions: Writing the Revolution workshop and performance. About Terrible Virtue they  wrote:” Reproductive rights. A topic that echoes in my brain as a young woman living in America in 2018, as a woman whose major maternal figure no longer can act as a guide for such womanly choices. Jessica Litwak’s Terrible Virtue is filled with choices and negotiations, and navigating the world we live in now and that was built for us by women like Margaret Sanger and Angela Davis. A couple glasses of wine, some cheese, and I was ready to hold the hands of these strangers as we discussed all of these topics so true and personal. I may not see these women again. Hell, I don’t remember all of their names. But that table, for a night, became my community. Lesson learned: Read your next play around a table with wine and cheese.”  About the second event they stated:“ Ultimately, Structural Compositions was more than a playwriting workshop. It was a healing circle. It was a tight knit community. It was a safe space to collect our reactions to events that shaped us and pour them onto the page. Participating in the workshop was a powerful process for me. Not only was I equipped with the tools to hone my craft, I was rooted in a community of artists who share the same goal of making a difference with our words. In this way I was encouraged to grow, and for me that meant stepping into my power as both a theatre maker and a human being. As all the participants sat around a table we found our power and we unapologetically wrote………In a time where the voices of artists are needed now more than ever, that too is an act of resistance.” 

This month I was inspired and grateful for these four insightful and generous contributions to our community conversation. Please join us by commenting on the Blog entries. Also feel free to contact us if there is a Blog you want to write and/or a discussion you want to generate about Healing, Education, Activism or Theatre on our platform. We welcome your voice to join ours in using theatre as a vehicle for personal and social change.

See you in September.

Jessica Litwak, August 2018

A Workshop, A Potluck and a Play

A Workshop, A Potluck and a Play

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

 

The H.E.A.T. Collective recently held two events: A potluck reading of Terrible Virtue, a play about the history of reproductive rights in the U.S. and Structural Compositions, a playwriting workshop where writers created pieces about resistance named after the structures where they took place. In this joint blog entry, participants Brooke Shilling and Rebecca-Anne Whittaker reflect on their journeys.

Potluck and a Play

I learned last week that every play is meant to be read around a table with wine and cheese. At The H.E.A.T. Collective’s Terrible Virtue Potluck, I sat around a large table with six other women and shared a story about topics we all connected to very deeply. Things are hot and cooking in the kitchen. But by the time they reach the table, they have set; they’re ready to go and people are ready for it. That’s how I felt with this play reading. We were all ready, ready to nosh, ready to read, ready to drink, and ready to play.

Tables are such a symbol of community. I know in my home growing up, our table was a special place. Every night, we stopped everything to have dinner together around our table. There was no question about it, it was a given in our home. It was a sacred space. It was our community. Even in college and when I’ve lived in other cities and countries, the table is where we built community. What better place is there to read and discuss one of the most community- building pieces of anthropology and humanity: a story.

This story happened to be about a topic that is not as happy as wine and cheese around a big table might lend it to be. Reproductive rights. A topic that echoes in my brain as a young woman living in America in 2018, as a woman whose major maternal figure no longer can act as a guide for such womanly choices. Jessica Litwak’s Terrible Virtue is filled with choices and negotiations, and navigating the world we live in now and that was built for us by women like Margaret Sanger and Angela Davis. A couple glasses of wine, some cheese, and I was ready to hold the hands of these strangers as we discussed all of these topics so true and personal. I may not see these women again. Hell, I don’t remember all of their names. But that table, for a night, became my community. Lesson learned: Read your next play around a table with wine and cheese.

Structural Compositions

In The H.E.A.T. Collective Presents: Structural Compositions, writers created short pieces about resistance named after the structures where they took place. Ultimately, Structural Compositions was more than a playwriting workshop. It was a healing circle. It was a tight knit community. It was a safe space to collect our reactions to events that shaped us and pour them onto the page. Participating in the workshop was a powerful process for me. Not only was I equipped with the tools to hone my craft, I was rooted in a community of artists who share the same goal of making a difference with our words. In this way I was encouraged to grow, and for me that meant stepping into my power as both a theatermaker and a human being. As all the participants sat around a table we found our power and we unapologetically wrote.

Facilitators Jessica Litwak and Catherine Filloux led us through a series of exercises to get our creative juices flowing. We reached deep into our imaginations and wrote about what we heard, saw, smelled, tasted. Jessica and Catherine had different approaches that complimented each other and joined together to form a beautiful whole. They led the workshop with a quiet power, and opened up the floor so that all of our voices could be heard. Before we knew it, we had created a range of pieces about walls, statues, bridges, school desks. We had raised our voices.

Workshop participants were granted the opportunity to perform our pieces at a H.E.A.T. Collective event the following evening. I was honored to both share my story and hear the stories of others. For me, performing my piece was healing. As I read my words aloud to our community, I felt that I was able to reclaim my space and find my voice. I felt empowered as I read aloud the words that the younger version of myself had yearned to hear. As I reflect on both the workshop and the performance, a part of the process that I will continue to hold close to my heart was the encouragement to be unapologetically ourselves. In a time where the voices of artists are needed now more than ever, that too is an act of resistance.


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Brooke Shilling is a born and raised New Yorker with a passion for devising socially relevant pieces of theatre and for using theatre as a vehicle for change. She is a graduate of Ithaca College with a BFA in Acting. She has worked with groups including One Year Lease Theatre Company, Civic Ensemble, The Martin E. Segal Center, A Laboratory for Actor Training, The Joust Theatre Company and more. She also began to develop her solo show Ladies of the Land with the Drama League's Fourth Friday Art+Party Residency. She is humbled to be a part of the H.E.A.T. Collective community.


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Rebecca-Anne Whittaker recently received her B.A. in Drama from Vassar College. In 2016 she undertook the Midsummer in Oxford course at the British American Drama Academy. As a recipient of the Miranda Family Fund, Rebecca-Anne studied at the O’Neill’s National Theater Institute in 2017. She is an actor and writer who hopes to use her voice to ignite change.

Nobody is waiting for Godot: Arts-Activism in Afghanistan

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

 

Among the infinite possibilities of envisaging an arts-activist, the one that presently most occupies my imagination is the artist as gravedigger, the artist as human excavator. 

 

The image emerges as a result of yet another suicide bombing in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on August 15, this time targeting a local educational center, in which scores of young students were preparing diligently for an upcoming university entrance exam. Boom. In one single act of human barbarity, dozens of aspiring and talented youth, the future of any country, were blown to pieces, and with them were wiped out hundreds of their dreams, desires and vocations. 

 

At precisely the same time the attack happened, just a few minutes drive away, various members of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO; www.ahrdo.org), a local civil society organization and theatre platform, were in the process of concluding their rehearsals for a new anti-war play, provisionally entitled “20 Ways of Dying in Afghanistan and 1 Love Song”, taking inspiration from Pablo Neruda’s famous book of love poems. Absurdly, we had spent a good part of the afternoon rehearsing a scene, in which a suicide bomber is getting himself ready to go to heaven. In spite of the grim theme, the mood throughout the day was one of immense creativity, experimentation and artistic resolve, with the objective to create a play that serves as an honest attempt to portray the kind of crude madness people in Afghanistan have to live in day in, day out. 

 

We finished our rehearsal in high spirits, getting ready to spend the evening with friends and families, trying to enjoy life in the midst of an otherwise increasingly unbearable overall context, haunted by 40 years of war and human cruelty. Then someone’s phone rang. Boom. We were told that a suicide blast had just happened right in the neighborhood where most of the performers, their families and many of our friends live. The room went chokingly silent. The first ambulances could be heard. The smell in our rehearsal space suddenly took on the stench of burnt human flesh. The line between joy and anguish is seamless in a place of war. Theatre of the Absurd. 

 

What happens in the following 24 hours is the Afghan version of Audre Lorde’s “transformation of silence into language and action.” Together with other colleagues and comrades, those who until just a few moments ago rehearsed collaboration and solidarity on the stage are now exhibiting the same qualities as part of an all-out, collective emergency response to aid the victims and their families. There is no time to lose. An organizing committee is set up. People from all walks of life. The energy is frenetic. Phone calls. Tweets. Emails. A few sighs of rage and despair in-between. What to do with the (unclaimed) bodies? Most of them cannot even be identified, as their families often live far away, somewhere in rural Afghanistan, most likely totally unaware that the remains of the exclusive bearers of their family destiny are currently being prepared for burial by sympathetic, but anonymous morda shoye (corpse washers). The issue is pressing. The bodies need to be buried soon for religious reasons but also because otherwise they might be claimed by government authorities that will make sure that their own complicity in the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence in the country will once again be covered up.  

 

More phone calls. More tweets. More emails. (No more sighs, every breath is needed to do justice for the victims). Finally, a decision is made. A mass burial will be organized the next morning. The burial ground is a hill not too far from the neighborhood where the attack took place. Until just a few hours ago this hill served as a popular picnic place but who feels like eating when your brothers and sisters have just been obliterated? Theatre of the Absurd. In short, the hill will be occupied and nobody is going to stop my friends from doing what needs to be done. “We are damaged and dangerous, and you will not stop us”, so goes the line of one of the characters in our new play. Nonetheless, security will again be an issue. Too many times in the past those who came to mourn the deaths of their loved ones themselves became victims of a suicide blast. Hence, discussions are held with a local police commander to guarantee security during the burial. He promises to help but later does not show up. 

 

Who does show up, however, are hundreds of people, my actor-friends among them,  equipped with shovels, pickaxes and other digging material (as well as a single excavator), determined to lay to rest those who “met their end prematurely, whose death is not the proper conclusion of a life but its violent curtailment” (Quentin Meillassoux). The atmosphere is stifling. It is one of the hottest days of the year but no one cares about the heat, it is the culture of death and impunity ruling Afghanistan for so long (with generous support of large parts of the so-called international community. Shame on you.) that is making people’s blood boil. That, and the fact that all of sudden a number of armed police (not related to the aforementioned police commander) show up on the scene and violently try to drive the crowd away, injuring 2 people in the process. Needless to say, their mission failed. The digging begins. Shovels and spades everywhere. The bodies of the martyrs are carried in. Tears of Pain. Tears of Rage. Rebellious Tears. Revolutionary Tears. We will not forget. Enough is enough. 

 

A few moments later, back in the office. The human excavators are spread out all over the place. Some are laying on the floor. Others are slumped into chairs. Another one lays knocked out on a sofa, having his blood pressure taken, somehow still managing to continue sending out tweets and phone messages. Empty eyes and exhausted silence all over. The sighs are back. Beckett may have lost his sanity in Afghanistan. Tea is served. I timidly dare to ask how it was for them up on the hill. Their answers cause the pain of snakebites:

 

“The one thing I kept asking myself while I was digging the grave of our martyred friends is who will dig my grave if one day, probably soon, I will be killed in some stupid attack?”

 

“What is worst about the situation here in Afghanistan is that to die violently has become the norm and all you do is constantly ask yourself when it will finally be your turn to be killed. I wish that, when it happens, at least I will die immediately. I do not want to die a slow, lonely  death.”

 

and finally,

 

“For how many more years can we ask the people of Afghanistan, day after day, to rise from the ashes of the corpses of their own mutilated dreams? How many more times can the Phoenix resurrect before it finally dies of exhaustion and despair?”

 

Boom. There it is. The ultimate questions about human life resulting from decades of war, loss, dehumanization and continuously betrayed hopes. Boom. Boom. Boom. No doubt, Beckett would have definitely lost his sanity in today’s Afghanistan. But then again maybe not, because from all I can tell, my arts-activist, human excavator friends are by no means willing to throw in their blood-soaked towels just yet. On the contrary, paraphrasing James Baldwin, I saw them shaken many times and I lived to see them broken but I never saw them give up. Their wings may be tired but their inner Phoenix is still rising every day. 

 

Staying alive is (also) a political question. 

 

PS: The opening performance of our new play will go ahead as planned. The performers decided that now was the perfect moment to continue the indictment of those who prefer to kill because they are too cowardly to live. 

 

PS2: Of course my arts-activist, human excavator friends have names. However, they prefer to remain anonymous as they do not want to claim individual credit for what was a super-human collective effort. 

 

In difficult moments like the one we are facing in Afghanistan right now, it is good to know that there are people and entities out there one can count and rely on for support, care and solidarity. My dear friend and colleague Jessica and the other members of The H.E.A.T. Collective belong precisely to such category of people. Tashakor. Manana. Thank you. 


Hjalmar Jorge Joffre-Eichhorn is a German-Bolivian theater maker who uses different types of participatory, political theater such as Theater of the Oppressed and Playback Theater to work with communities in conflict and create possibilities for bottom-up dialogue and a search for grassroots solutions. Hjalmar has been working in Afghanistan since 2007 and is one of the co-founders of the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization (AHRDO). 

Working Classroom

Working Classroom

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

We can all be better students. And teachers. And people. It takes listening, humility, and the understanding that you always have more to learn. These ideas are at the core of our values at Working Classroom, a 30-year-old arts, theater, and new media non-profit in Albuquerque, NM that cultivates the artistic, civic, and academic minds of youth through in-depth arts projects with contemporary artists to amplify historically ignored voices, resist systemic injustices, and imagine a more equitable society. For the past five years, I have had the privilege of serving as the Theater Conservatory Director for this deeply progressive and impactful organization. At Working Classroom, we train our alumni to facilitate workshops, we integrate topics of social justice into every aspect of our programming, and we create nearly 50 paid opportunities every year for our students to work on projects as professional artists, alongside some of the best guest artists from across the country and around the world. We do this because we know young people can be fantastic leaders, create stunning art work, and they also have a lot to say about the state of the world. We don't need to empower them, they are great at that on their own. We just need to provide the resources and stay in dialogue with each other. 

 

This past summer we had the distinct pleasure of welcoming more new guest artists into the Working Classroom family, one of which I'll highlight here. Clara Solly-Slade is a heartfelt, thoughtful, and extraordinarily playful theater artist from Australia. We met last summer while we were investing in our own educations by attending the La MaMa Umbria international directors symposium in Spoleto, Italy. I was there because I chose the training for my allotted professional development at Working Classroom. Clara was there because of a grant from Helpmann Academy, and granting body in her home country, and the university she graduated from. It was exactly because our institutions understand how valuable continued education is that either one of us were able to be in the idyllic, creative mecca that is La MaMa Umbria. 

 

We became fast friends. We talked a lot about working with young people, including how other people can sometimes reduce our work as not real art, simply because of the population we work with. Because Working Classroom is easily one of my favorite topics (I warn people they can ask me to stop at any time, really, I could go on forever about why it's such a cool place, but anyway...), we ended up talking deeply about the steps Working Classroom takes to make our students’ education a priority. We talked about the original work we've created with Tectonic Theater Project and Borderlands Theater, and the murals that are an iconic part of Albuquerque's landscape. We talked about why it's so important to us to hire artists that come from the same kinds of backgrounds as our students, and why it is so important to us to pay our students when they are hired for professional artistic work. It all comes down to valuing student voice. From the guest artists we chose to the dollars we pay, we are teaching our students that they don't need to work for free for the exposure, they don't need to make only a certain kind of art that is accepted by the mainstream, and they don't have to believe there's no money in the arts, especially for students like them - in poverty, varying immigration status, first to go to college - they can see themselves in the artist we hire, so they know for sure there really are people just like them making a life for themselves as artists. 

 

Little did I know, I had inadvertently talked dear Clara into including Working Classroom into her next big grant application. Clara used her final year of a five-year grant-cycle to work at three US institutions. La MaMa ETC, Working Classroom and the H.E.A.T. Collective. She spent exactly three months in the US, using every last day of her travel visa. She spent two months living in NYC and one month in Albuquerque. Working with Jessica at H.E.A.T. Collective was her first stop. She learned so much from Jessica about what makes her company special. She learned how to organize websites, and people, and to Working Classroom’s great fortune, Jessica's approach to puppet making. Clara was also able to set up an in-person meeting for Jessica and I when Jessica was in New Mexico. It was such a gift to make a connection in this unusual way. While I had been seduced by the power of Working Classroom's mission years ago, getting to see it through new eyes, through someone who moved worlds to work with us, well, I still don't have the words to convey how meaningful it has been. 

 

Clara arrived at the beginning of June, her first task was to be a student in a week-long workshop with Fitzmaurice voicework master, Micha Espinosa. It was a great place for Clara to start. Immediately, she got to experience our intergenerational class model. Our youngest students were just 12 and our oldest was in their 60's. The class was four hours a day for one week, and could easily pass for a college level course. Micha is a true master, and has been coming back to Working Classroom every summer for ten years because she believes so much in what we do. We are always humbled to host her. The rest of the year, when she is not teaching in her tenured role at Arizona State University, she's always in some far-flung part of the world like Argentina or Bali teaching up a storm, or working on her latest book. 

 

This first week was already a revelation for Clara. It was inspiring to watch her over the course of the week continue to be blown away, not just with the caliber of the instruction, but from the power of the students. She told me that it had become one the most creatively fulfilling experiences she'd ever had, and that she felt so inspired for her own classes coming up. I have to admit, as someone who loves this organization as much as I do, to hear her and watch her as she had this transformative experience, it's enough to make me tear up a little as I write this. 

 

In the weeks that followed Clara had her own opportunity to take lead. She took her puppet making skills she learned with Jessica and immediately applied them to her curriculum with her own beautiful Clara spin. And this is where she got to blow me away. Because she had just experienced Micha's workshop, and high off the experience from her NYC time as well, she dove into her workshops with such confidence, intent, and sense of fun, every student she worked with was all in. She created an environment of focused play. She taught two levels of puppets, one more advanced, but just a week long, and one more introductory, but for three weeks. Both workshops ended up with beautiful products, both the puppets made, and the performances we created with them. 


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In her last two weeks, with only one class to teach, and her afternoons free, Clara decided to take a new media workshop with another new guest artist we invited this summer named Karl Orozco. Not only was she able to work with new students, and pick up many new media skills, she was able to see another great guest artist do their thing while going through the process of discovering the magic of Working Classroom and our students. She even had a great time showing him around and talking about all she had learned so far. Their teaching exchange was so strong that she recruited Karl to create a stop motion animation for our puppets. This wasn't part of the original lesson plan, but because her weeks at Working Classroom were so rich, and her skills so fresh, her can-do attitude made things that shouldn't have been possible, totally doable. 

 

It was a sad hard day when we said goodbye to Clara. In the month she spent with us she became our family, and she always will be. We hope we'll find our own way to bring her again. We will always be grateful to Clara, and the grant she wrote to bring her. What she had to offer us was equally valuable as what she had to take away. I write this story as the basis of this blog post because I believe it illuminates so much of what makes Working Classroom's mission so special. The connection to our students, the drive to innovate, and to immediately apply the skills being learned. In her time with us Clara was a student, a teacher, and an all-around amazing person. Our students still talk about her and ask when she is coming back. And while I don't have an answer yet, a plan will inevitably be in the works. 

 

Clara and I would have never met unless someone else had seen the value of our own education. We have both been lucky enough to be parts of institutions that prioritize that desire to learn, and always improve and expand. Working Classroom makes it possible for our students to take the time to invest in themselves, to see themselves as worthy of a paycheck, worthy of respect. I very much hope this story can help others consider what place education has in their own lives. Are you investing in yourself? Is there something you want to learn but are scared to? Is there maybe something you have to teach, but haven't found the place to teach it, or maybe you don’t realize how valuable your knowledge is? My advice to you, keep going, do the hard thing, make the investment. Who knows, maybe you'll find yourself in Italy, sipping wine while making life-long friends and collaborators. Just don't forget, we can all be better teachers, and we can all be students for life.  

 

photo credits: John Acosta


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Meggan Gomez is the Theater Conservatory Director at Working Classroom in Albuquerque, NM. At Working Classroom she manages all aspect of the theatre program, including contracting guest artists, developing new projects, partnerships, and curriculum, as well as teaching improvisation, clowning and Theatre of the Oppressed. Originally from Pennsylvania, Meggan studied acting in the BFA program at Montclair State University before moving to New York City to create her own work. Affiliations include Cornerstone Theater, The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and TEDxABQ. Meggan is on the steering committee of the Latinx Theater Commons and sits on Working Classroom's executive board as Secretary.

Healing Witnessing

Healing Witnessing

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

 

The times in my life that I have experienced the most healing have been times when the pain I was in was witnessed by someone else – someone who believed I was telling the truth. They didn’t tell me not to worry. They didn’t try to fix me or the situation. They didn’t say trite phrases like, “It’ll be OK,” or “You’ll get over this.” They simply acknowledged what had happened was wrong and showed me through voice, gesture, and facial expression that they saw my pain. 

 

In the psychotherapy world, that kind of healing moment would have been called one of Unconditional Positive Regard. In drama therapy it would be called Active Witnessing. 

 

Theatre, too, can provide this type of healing witnessing and the H.E.A.T. Collective with its focus on telling the difficult stories of people all over the world contributes to that needed witnessing.

 

Whenever a story is told on stage, the original teller of that story and all who identify with it feel seen. They can stop holding their breath, feel the validation of being witnessed, and begin healing. 

 

Sometimes the next step in the healing process is to fully feel anger at the hurtful situation, and then choose to let it go. Sometimes the next step is to use the anger to generate change – either small “c” change in one’s life or big “C” change in the world systems responsible for the injustice.

 

What is magical is that the entire audience experiences the story. Our mirror neuron system, coupled with our sensory-motor-language systems in the brain, allow everyone watching the performance to unconsciously simulate the performed actions and words of the play. Audience members aren’t passively receiving a story second-hand. They are feeling the emotions of the actors and bodily understanding what they do. This means the actors are literally passing the story on into the bodies, hearts, and minds of those watching.

 

The shared experience that theatre offers is unlike any other. It is truly the real thing. 

 

So, the next time you are deeply moved by a performance, don’t dismiss it as “just a play.” You have actively witnessed someone’s story and grown in your understanding of another.


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Sally Bailey, MFA, MSW, RDT/BCT is Professor of Theatre and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS.  Her book Barrier-Free Theatre was recipient of the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s 2011 Distinguished Book Award. Previous to K-State she worked for 13 years in the Washington, DC area as a registered drama therapist with recovering addicts and people with disabilities. A past president of the North American Drama Therapy Association, she is a recipient of their Gertrud Schattner Award for distinguished contributions to the field of drama therapy in education, publication, practice, and service.  

 

 

 

August Writers

August Writers

I'm thrilled to see our H.E.A.T. community grow as we launch these blogs. As we continue to uplift our mission of inspiring artistic expression and igniting dialogue, it brings me great joy to introduce our writers for the month of August. Sending a warm welcome Sally Bailey: a Professor of Theatre and Director of the Drama Therapy Program at Kansas State University, Meggan Gomez: Theater Conservatory Director at Working ClassroomSue Hamilton: an artist, activist, and founder of Artists Rise Up LA, and Nia Witherspoon: a multidisciplinary artist investigating the metaphysics of black liberation, desire, and diaspora. Thank you all for your continued engagement with this wonderful work, and be sure to check back every Monday morning for new posts!

H.E.A.T. in July

H.E.A.T. in July

It has been so wonderful to read our first month of guest blogs! The mission of H.E.A.T. is to incorporate aspects healing, education, activism and theatre into every project, event, workshop, publication and performance. This Blog series focuses on one aspect per week, allowing us to build the Collective through writing and readership, AND to discover more ways of implementing H.E.A.T. in the world. Thanks so much to Brooke for the idea and to Rebecca for curating. I am thrilled by the response so far and excited by our line up of guest bloggers in months to come.

This month we heard from Adam, my frequent collaborator and friend. Hewrote" I am a person of color. I am an artist. I am a drama therapist.  As I move through the world of the arts and various clinical practices, I bear witness to people of color being expected to perform and uphold myopic standards, stereotypes, appropriated by others. When a person of color steps outside this regulated box, or cage, conflict ensues and discomfort rises. " His honest, clear and heartfelt description of being a person of color in the field of drama therapy is truly worth a read.

Kathy Nigh wrote about education in such a profound way. She states: "One of my favorite comments I get from students (and I have been fortunate enough to hear it more than once) is that they have learned as much if not more about a topic in our theater history course as they have in a “straight” history or critical theory course.  I think one of the reasons why theater can connect us with “the other” in a particularly impactful way is that in order to make good theater we have to understand “the other.”  If you are playing the “bad guy” in a play, you have to understand and empathize with that character because you are that character.  You have to understand why your character is the way they are.  It is all too easy to judge others these days, but theater invites us to understand what makes people tick.   I have learned time and time again not to underestimate the power of theater in the classroom. " Her writing is a solid and deep analysis of why educating people about theatre can be such a life forming act- both intellectually and politically.

Joan Lipkin is a constant inspiration to me. We have worked together, planned together, and shared deep conversations alone and in groups about how to create change in the current world. She writes in her blog about some of her many action projects that directly impact the communities in which she circulates. She writes: "We also founded a project called Dance The Vote that utilizes performance to call attention the necessity of voting and exercising our rights and responsibilities as citizens of the USA. In St Louis, we partnered with local dance companies and spoken word artists and poets to create new commissioned work about the history and urgency of voting, especially for people of color, women and people with disabilities that was performed free and outdoors.  Again, we helped register audience members to vote." This blog is an important example of how artists can dive into activism with courageous generosity.

Catherine Filloux is a very dear friend, co-teacher, artistic collaborator and comrade. She writes here about a subject at the heart of the H.E.A.T. Collective paradigm: collaboration.  She writes: "A key discovery I have made during this process is that the whole team needs to consistently work together. The three of us have discussed everything down to the use of one word over another. This kind of artistic collaboration can serve as an example of how a group working together--listening, disagreeing, coming to decisions that ultimately work, understanding the need for change--can be greater than an individual." Her blog explores the process of one of her current projects and is a very interesting window into the art of writing with others.

It is with great pride and love that I share my thoughts about these great practitioners. I hope you will read and comment upon their blogs, and stay in touch with us. Please let us know if you would like to write something for the Blog. 

In Solidarity and With Love,

Jessica, Artistic Director, The H.E.A.T. Collective

Making a Musical

Making a Musical

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

For this blog I was asked to write about “Theater” based on the last letter of H.E.A.T. (namely T), and I decided to describe a process that seemed to resonate with themes explored by the organization.   

Several years ago, I began working on my first musical “All Dressed Up and Nowhere To Go” with the composer Jimmy Roberts, who composed “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” which ran Off-Broadway longer than any other musical besides “The Fantasticks.”  John Daggett, who is book-writer and writer of additional lyrics with lyricist Jimmy Roberts, is the one who had the idea to turn one of my plays into a musical.  I am a playwright and a librettist, but this has been my first experience working on a musical theater piece.  I am half of the book-writing team.  

A key discovery I have made during this process is that the whole team needs to consistently work together.  The three of us have discussed everything down to the use of one word over another.  This kind of artistic collaboration can serve as an example of how a group working together--listening, disagreeing, coming to decisions that ultimately work, understanding the need for change--can be greater than an individual.  It has taught me patience, reconfirmed the virtue of a sense of humor, as well as shown me the nurturing effects of sharing meals, conversation, and other people’s work, outside of our own.  The musical is a form that is extremely demanding as it needs to balance music, spoken word, singing, lyrics and instrumentation.  

The story is as follows:  Joan Wilkes, “Buffalo’s Favorite Diva,” is ready to sell The Big Dipper Inn, her magical but debt-ridden motel known for its singing hostess and rich family history.  Her son is all set to go to a pricey university, so she needs some serious cash.  An ambitious realtor is strong-arming Joan to close the deal with Highland Corp to guarantee her promotion to Senior VP.  

But outside, a raging blizzard has caused a van filled with Amish folks to collide with a charter bus carrying a group of cross-dressers.  The State Police bring the stranded passengers to the Dipper to wait out the storm, and Joan reluctantly takes them in.

We will be presenting an Equity musical reading on October 12th, at Pearl Studios, directed by Hannah Ryan, resident director of HAMILTON.  

 PHOTO:  The three authors, with two of the performers, at a recording session. 

PHOTO:  The three authors, with two of the performers, at a recording session. 


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Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright, whose more than twenty plays have been produced in the U.S. and around the world. Her play Luz premiered at La MaMa in New York City, where she is an Artist in Residence, and was then produced at Looking for Lilith in Louisville, Kentucky. Selma ‘65, her play about the civil rights movement and the KKK, is also a new La MaMa production. Catherine went on an overseas reading tour to Sudan and South Sudan organized by the University of Iowa's International Writing Program; and her play The Beauty Inside was produced in Northern Iraq, in the Kurdish language, by ArtRole. Filloux has been commissioned by the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House) to write the libretto for a new opera, which will premiere in 2019. She is the librettist for The Floating Box (Music by Jason Kao Hwang), Where Elephants Weep (Music by Sophy Him) and New Arrivals (Music by John Glover). Filloux’s plays are published by Playscripts, Smith & Kraus, Vintage, DPS and Prentice Hall. Her anthologies include Silence of God and Other Plays, published by Seagull Books, and Dog and Wolf & Killing the Boss, NoPassport Press. Catherine received her M.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from Tisch at N.Y.U. and her French Baccalaureate in Philosophy with Honors in Toulon, France. Filloux is featured in the documentary film “Acting Together on the World Stage" co-created by Dr. Cynthia E. Cohen and filmmaker Allison Lund. She is a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders and has served as a speaker for playwriting and human rights organizations around the world. http://www.catherinefilloux.com

Energy in Action: Focusing on the Midterm 2018 Elections

Energy in Action: Focusing on the Midterm 2018 Elections

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.

 

Like many, I have struggled to find my way in this dystopian nightmare in which we find ourselves following the questionable election of Donald Trump. Who am I as an artist? As a citizen? Where might I best invest my energies, when the threats to any semblance of democracy mount daily? 


One of my first actions was to team up with the formidable Jessica Litwak, an artist and activist I have long admired. Remarkably, the day after the presidential election, November 9 2016, Jessica who is based in New York and Sue Hamilton, who is based in Los Angeles, started Artists Rise Up in their respective cities. 

 

Soon after, Jessica invited me to an informal discussion with other artists to talk about our concerns and to imagine widely what each of us might want to do. After sharing many ideas,  we decided to pool our actions to focus on the Fear Project, an ensemble piece based on interviews about our individual and collective fears conducted by members of the new Artists Rise Up New York collective. Jessica turned it into a script in which I performed along with four other ARUNY members at La Mama on Jan 30th 2017 at a one-night event that included a free carnival of activist actions. 

 

While still maintaining my relationship with ARUNY and the H.E.A.T. collective, in recent months, I have concentrated more efforts on activist work in the Midwest where I felt I could be of most use. 

 

A year ago, in conjunction with Indivisible St Louis Resist, St. Louis Indivisible, Bad & Nasty and the St. Louis Voter Registration Group on Flag Day, June 14th (which, as we said on our invite, happens to be Trump's birthday, too), my theatre company threw a free outdoor public birthday party for the resistance. Our activities included a phone your elected officials booth, a selfie booth, synchronized flag waving, coloring and chalk activities for kids, a cupcake bar, the collection of items for arriving immigrant and refugee families, and a choral reading of the Constitution. 

 

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We energized older and newer activists, created a fun intergenerational event, registered voters and wound up on the six o’clock news. 

 

My goal was to encourage fellow activists and to try to wrest control of a narrative and provide strong visuals for media to cover on our terms.

 

Since then, my biggest focus has been on voter registration and getting out the vote in Missouri, which went Red in the last election. 

 

There are so many issues on which we can focus and for which we are needed. And there is no question that boots on the ground front line protest matters. It helps us find each other. Makes our outrage visible.  Gives the media alternative coverage. And it helps us identify or use platforms to create our own messages. 

 

I go to my share of protests. I am grateful to everyone who shows up. I also call my elected officials. Sign petitions. Write letters. But it is not where the bulk of my efforts are concentrated. 

 

I am focused on how to best protect our rights. Legally. 

 

That means reclaiming the Senate and securing Democratic seats on the congressional level.  It is our most reliable way to staunch the appointment of conservative judges to appellate courts nationwide and to the Supreme Court.

 

In other words, getting out the vote. 

 

The first step for us has been registering people. In conjunction with the St. Louis Voter Registration Group, we have offered free classes on teaching people how to register other people to vote.

 

It’s a bit unusual for a theater company to offer voter registration classes. But then, these are unusual times. 

 

We also founded a project called Dance The Vote that utilizes performance to call attention the necessity of voting and exercising our rights and responsibilities as citizens of the USA. In St Louis, we partnered with local dance companies and spoken word artists and poets to create new commissioned work about the history and urgency of voting, especially for people of color, women and people with disabilities that was performed free and outdoors.  Again, we helped register audience members to vote.

 

The project was initially offered as a series in the summer and fall of 2016 leading up to the Presidential election in public spaces outside iconic local venues like Left Bank Books, Vintage Vinyl as well as St Louis Black Pride. 

 

The project will continue for the midterm elections. We are commissioning many companies including Ashleyliane Dance Company, the Slaughter Project, Common Thread Contemporary Dance, Imagine Dance Project, Karlovsky & CompanyBeyond Measure Dance Theater and the AfroKuumba Dancers, Innervision  Dance Theatre, Watt It Is Productions, and more to create short dance and performance pieces to emphasize the history and challenges of voting  and the importance of voting and voter registration. Some of the poets and spoken word artists include Pam Garvey, Roseann Weiss and Susan Spit-Fire Lively, among others. We will also be organizing a city-wide flash dance mob on voting.

 

This time, we have been embraced by the Missouri History Museum who will host our free non-partisan event on October 6, to call attention to the October 10 deadline for the midterm 2018 elections on November 6. We will then reprise our free event on October 28 at the St. Louis Ethical Society, this time with a focus on actually getting out the vote a few days later.

 

As is the case with most of our work, Dance the Vote is diverse in its representation of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age and dis/ability. 

 

We want to show our world as it really is and the beauty and strength in diversity. It also helps to attract audiences who are hungry to see themselves represented and who are then, possibly, also more open to seeing other experiences.


I initially conceived DTV as a way for artists to also feel less disenfranchised by stepping into this crucial conversation and using their gifts. Along the way, I have unexpectedly found myself re-inspired by the creativity and generosity of the arts community and have fallen out of despair and in love again with my tribe. 

 

I offer DTV as one model that others may feel free to use in any way that best suits their own communities. We do have a voice. We can make a difference. Our creativity and commitment are our tools, as is our vote. 

 

Now let’s Make America Democratic again. 


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Joan Lipkin, the producing artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company in St. Louis, is a playwright, director, educator, and social activist who divides her time between New York City, Los Angeles, and St. Louis. She has worked extensively with diverse populations such as the LGBTQIA community, people with Alzheimer’s and early-onset dementia, women who have been sexually trafficked, people in recovery, college students, cancer patients, inner-city youth, and communities of faith. Among her honors are Arts Innovator of the Year; a Visionary, Ethical Humanist of the Year; and the ATHE Award for Leadership in Community-based Theatre and Civic Engagement. Some of her current projects include The New Colossus, an arts-based curriculum about immigration; Dance the Vote (dance and spoken word to promote voter registration and voting); and the Queer Café, a series of intentional dialogues and performance pieces with the LGBTQIA community in Serbia in collaboration with the Civil Rights Defenders.

Education

Education

The H.E.A.T. Collective was founded by Artistic Director Jessica Litwak to create, advocate and inspire artistic expression rooted in healing, education, activism, and theatre. We work to build collectives in every context: in our performances, workshops and community events. Engaging artists across the world, we aim for powerful bridge building art of courageous generosity. In this series, guest experts will write a piece representing each letter of H.E.A.T. - week one will be healing, week two is education, week three is activism, and the last week of the month is theatre. Together these pieces will highlight the work that is being done across all aspects of The H.E.A.T. Collective in the hopes that we can ignite dialogue, spark further exploration, and encourage more people to get involved.
 

What does it mean to me to be an educator? To me, being an educator is a sacred calling – the same type of calling that those who go into medicine or the priesthood or even the law (yes, I will consider that a sacred profession in this case) feel.  It is more than a job, it is a mission.  For me, the mission of education in the year of 2018 must extend beyond giving information to students and hoping they will memorize it for a test.  For me, my job as an educator is to assist students in not only knowing what they think but why they think what they think.  My responsibility is to lead them towards being critical thinkers who will care about the world they enter into once they graduate.  The mission of the H.E.A.T. collective reflects my belief (fortified by my years as an artist, professor and researcher) that theater has the power to heal, that it is a powerful form of activism and that education plays a part in that healing and activism.  As a matter of fact, I see my presence in the theater classroom as my largest form of activism.

I love teaching world history and critical theory through the lens of theater.  Reading plays, watching plays, making performance. . . can connect us with our past, help us understand our present and to imagine a better future.  Theater can connect us with people and communities we otherwise are never exposed to.  Theater allows us to travel around the world without ever leaving our classroom.  And theater can inspire us to travel beyond our worlds both geographical and figurative once we are out of the classroom.

One of my favorite comments I get from students (and I have been fortunate enough to hear it more than once) is that they have learned as much if not more about a topic in our theater history course as they have in a “straight” history or critical theory course.  I think one of the reasons why theater can connect us with “the other” in a particularly impactful way is that in order to make good theater we have to understand “the other.”  If you are playing the “bad guy” in a play, you have to understand and empathize with that character because you are that character.  You have to understand why your character is the way they are.  It is all too easy to judge others these days, but theater invites us to understand what makes people tick.  

I have learned time and time again not to underestimate the power of theater in the classroom.  I took a workshop with Augusto Boal and our Theater of the Oppressed group was focused on convincing the “powers that be” of the importance of theater within society.  Finally, I said, “I think we are approaching this all wrong.  We are assuming the issue is that the powers that be don’t understand the power and importance of theater.  What if the issue is that they do understand it and they don’t want young people who are trained to question “the norm”?”  

I don’t think it is any accident that tyrannical regimes find artists so threatening.  The cuts to funding we have seen to the arts over the past few decades reflect what I would consider to be a larger attempt to diminish the number of critically thinking citizens we have in this country.  At the end of the day, my job as the teacher is to remind students of the power of theater and to help them connect with their own power.  


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Dr. Katherine Jean Nigh is an artist/activist/scholar.  She received her PhD from Arizona State University’s Theatre and Performance of the Americas program (2011).  She has been a Professor in Theatre and Performance at Temple University,Arizona State University, Whittier College and Florida State University.  She has worked with the Hemispheric Institute (NYU) in the implementation of the Institute’s Digital Video Library.  She is a performer, director, dramaturg, producer, and performance artist.  Her research and publications focus on theater as a tool for social change/justice; performance of grief and mourning; national constructions of citizenship and belonging; and performance focused on race/gender and sexuality. Her book, Performing Contested Memories: Memory and Performance After the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission is under contract with Seagull Press. Her podcast, My Year Without A Man (interviews with womxn in the fields of theater and performance), can be found at www.soundcloud.com/myyearwithoutaman