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.
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.