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.
It is an understatement to say that we live in troubled times. Mass shootings occur on a regular basis. Politicians have vaulted into power as a result of racist, sexist, divisive rhetoric. We have seen an increase in fear, bullying, hate crimes and hate speech throughout the country. The status quo in which we live is becoming untenable. During this extremely difficult time for us as humans, the act of building and nourishing community is essential. Two important parts of growing community are the creation of theatre and education of our youth. My work in regards to community building has been aided by work with Jessica Litwak, the artistic director of the HEAT Collective, and Stacey Linnartz and Jeremy Rishe, the artistic directors and founders of Kids Creative Collective.
I have worked on a variety of shows over the years in New York City as a writer, director, performer, improviser, producer, designer, etc. Each experience has been valuable and helped me grow in many ways. It was through my work with Jessica that I began to see how the centerpiece of putting on a show should be creation and nourishment of community. I initially worked with Jessica as a member of Artists Rise Up New York (ARUNY), which was formed in response to the 2016 election. Each of our events highlighted socially relevant themes, such as environmental action, women’s rights, immigration, and racism. These themes on their own are extremely important, but Jessica encouraged the ensemble to bring the audience into our community as soon as the doors opened—not just when the lights went down. As a way to bring the audience into our community I created numerous installations, which were activities in which the audience participated prior to the show beginning. For example, we created a gallery of protest signs, a wall which the audience could take down piece by piece, a “Trump booth” where people spoke to a Trump voter over the phone, numerous audience-created murals, a photo booth with puppets of endangered animal species created by the company, and more. Taking part in this creative process was a truly transformative experience for me. It required me to step out of my comfort zone a bit, as I didn’t consider myself a designer, and it also allowed me to take a creative risk as I did not know how audience would respond to our experiment. The result of these endeavors was that there was more profound connection between the audience and performers. We created a unique experience together, which would forever bond us as community. This work inspired me to include installations and other community-building activities in my productions at school.
I have worked as a New York City Public School teacher since September 2009. I work in a Title 1 High School, which means that at least 40% of the students come from low-income families. My students are absolutely wonderful, but some of them undergo extreme hardship on a daily basis. I have learned that an important prerequisite for my class to function as a safe, productive place is to build and nourish a sense of community. Addressing students by name, having them engage with each other in both small and large-group discussion, and having norms in place is crucial for this to occur. I have also found that connecting students to the material—similar to connecting audiences to our ARUNY performances—is also an important piece for learning and growth. For example, I want my students to see that The Great Gatsby isn’t just a story about a bunch of rich white people who like to drink and party. It is about love, truth, and the pursuit of dreams—something with which they can relate. This allows them to engage more fully with the material and as a result build skills and achieve better results.
As a New York City Public teacher I am fortunate to teach a theatre elective and help run the Drama Club. Stacey Linanrtz and Jeremy Rishe have been integral to our efforts at creating powerful, devised theatre pieces which helped to bring the community together. Over the last few years our work has been affected by the 2016 election—both the hateful rhetoric leading up to it, and the unfortunate result. Inspired by our work with ARUNY, Jeremy and Stacey helped the students create Humans Being, an original piece about human rights violations, based on interviews which the members of the Drama Club conducted. Both the participants and the audience felt connected to the piece because it was inspired by genuine, relatable events. As part of this event, the audience was encouraged to add onto our mural, entitled “Hashtag Matters”- Courageous Conversations, where they wrote and reflected upon hashtags related to important themes in their day to day lives, such as #enough, #blacklivesmatter, etc. At the end of the event, Stacey and I coordinated a Q&A session between the audience and performers about the piece. Similar to the ARUNY experience, the audience felt as though they were a part of this event from the moment they entered the room until the moment they left. We were a united community—not merely a group of performers and a separate group of audience members.
Going forward, my goal is to continue working on building community, both in and outside of school. As people, we have so much to offer each other and are alike in many more ways than we are different. If we can continue coming together for the purpose of unifying, nourishment, and support then together we can make a better, more empathetic world. I am humbled to have learned these lessons from Jessica, Jeremy, and Stacey, and hope to impart them upon many others.
Zach Rothman-Hicks is an actor, director, designer, improviser, and New York City Public school teacher. He has had the honor of working with The H.E.A.T. Collective and other great companies in New York City. He hopes to continue bringing the concept of community building to his work.