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 only reason I want to teach is to learn. I learn from my university students when I talk to them about how to live life as a theatre artist in today's world; I learn from every workshop or talk I give and anytime I share experiences and insights I've gleaned over my 60+ years on this planet.
For the past 20 of those years, I have been involved with an extraordinarily inspiring project - The La MaMa Umbria International Symposium for Directors. Inspiring for me, that is. It may also inspire the hundreds of artists who come each Summer to our little Italian paradise in the Umbrian hills, but I can't speak to that. I can only share what it has done for me. I guess it's one of those situations where you create something because you don't understand it and hope by bringing a group of people together, you will find out what you want to know. The reality, however, is that I didn't know what I didn't know and what I ultimately have been learning is that there is always more to learn.
It all started almost 21 years ago when I decided to go to Italy to check out my friend Larry Sacharow's theatre project with Fordham University (where he led the Theatre Department) in the small town of Orvieto. It's easy to become enchanted with a place as beautiful as Orvieto and I was intrigued by the work Larry and his colleagues were doing there with his American students. Among the teachers were Dawn Saito, a Butoh expert and Larry himself, who specialized in a late Stanislavski/Grotowski-based approach to actor training.
After several days with Larry, I went to Spoleto to visit Ellen Stewart at La MaMa Umbria International, the artist residence she was building in a 700 year-old former convent. She had already begun to invite artists to come during the Summer to take workshops, develop new plays, share with other artists and live in this beautiful place far away from the pressures of daily life. I have visited before, for an evening or meal during previous years and I could see the progress she made each year on the grand renovation. One year a staircase appeared where there hadn't been one before; the next year some new bedrooms opened up, a new bathroom, more furniture, a wooden floor in the Studio, a stage in the field, a chapel...and on and on.
I made an off-hand comment one evening during my visit as I was taking in all that she had accomplished. I said something to the effect of: "This place is amazing; it would be great to have a symposium for directors here during the Summer." She looked at me with more seriousness than I thought my comment deserved and she said, "Okay baby, you do it." I was taken aback. Wait! It was just a thought. Me? How could I do that? What was I even talking about? But I couldn't let the idea go. When we got back to New York, I broached the idea with my colleagues at Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation where I was working as Executive Director. The response was not overwhelming. Mostly, they thought I was crazy.
Ellen, Mia Yoo and I met together several times over the next few months and came up with a plan for how it could work: 3 weeks of workshops, each week featuring 2 master directors leading workshops in their process. Each one could teach half a day. Ellen wasted no time in inviting the teaching artists. I gave her my dream list: Mnouchkine, Brook... She picked up the phone immediately and called them both at home (never mind the time difference). No formal invitation, strategy for inviting people, drafts of letters going back and forth. Ellen just did it. That was a big lesson for me.
If there was anyone who embodied the principle of Education for me, it was Ellen Stewart. She taught me many things. Her 'just do it' philosophy was accompanied by a sense of possibility that was not limited by personal thinking or insecurities. It didn't occur to her that something she wanted to do might not be possible. Perhaps that's why La MaMa ETC in New York has 4 buildings, performance spaces, rehearsal studios, dorm rooms, community meeting space, a gallery, etc. and produces over 70 productions each year. It's why she could travel to over 40 countries during her lifetime bringing productions and finding promising artists she invited to come to New York to perform. It's why she could create an international artists' residence in the Umbrian hills.
In 2001, we stepped off another cliff and presented the first La MaMa Umbria International Symposium for Directors. 25 artists from different backgrounds, different countries, different approaches to making plays came together to work with Master Artists: Mary Overlie (USA), Laurence Sacharow (USA), Min Soo Ahn (Korea), Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (India) and Jean-Guy Lecat (France). I don't recall the specifics now, but I'm sure it was a confused mess much of the time, as we tried to figure out what we were doing. But something happened that Summer. I stretched my own idea of what I could do and what collaboration was really all about. Our wonderful La MaMa family worked together with a generosity of spirit that touches me to this day.
We had all created a place for education of the artist; but it wasn't just what they learned about theatre from the amazing directors there, it was, I realized later, something more. We created an opportunity for the artists who came to expand their own sense of possibility. Each Summer Ellen would talk to the directors, tell stories of her life, 'read' people, teach, in her own way and by her own example, that more may be possible in this life than we think. And we can do more, accomplish more than we imagine.
For me, Jessica Litwak and the H.E. A.T. Collective are continuing this tradition. Every time I have an opportunity to take a class or teach a class with Jessica I learn even more about how to take care of people so they feel safe to experiment, how to inspire them to create in ways they hadn't before and how to integrate the impulse for social justice with art-making. There's a continuum I can see from Ellen to Jessica and many others. I think it comes from an impulse to create that can't be stifled. Whatever frustrations we may be facing with the state of the world, our own limitations, financial constraints, etc. they continue to create. Whether it's building an arts center or making a puppet, writing a play or giving a lecture, they relentlessly make things -- and those things affect a lot of people.
I am happy to continue to learn from all of the artists I encounter each year - hundreds over the past two decades. The most moving times for me have been those moments when I encounter an artist who takes a risk and goes further than they knew they could in a particular exercise. The sheer joy they experience knowing they have broken through to some new aspect of themselves - that takes my breath away.
David curates the La MaMa Umbria International Symposia, which bring renowned artists from around the world to Spoleto, Italy each Summer for workshops, residencies and performances in the Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds. He recently received the CEC ArtLink Residency in St. Petersburg, Russia. He serves on the Steering Committee for Theatre Without Borders, which produced conferences such as Socially Engaged Performance: A Global Conversation. He is a Founder and Trustee of the 30-year old Barrow Group Theatre Company located in New York City. He is an author, community activist, and Facilitator (“joker”) of Forum Theatre. As a Fulbright Specialist in Theatre, he recently completed a residency with Dah Teatar in Belgrade, Serbia. David is President of Career Coaching for Artists which presents workshops for professionals and students, including Directing Your Theatre Career annually at Columbia University and Yale School of Drama, providing resources for navigating a career in the professional art world. His most recent publications are a chapter in Dah Teatar: A Sourcesbook, published in 2016 and the "Prenotazione" in Butta La Pasta: Cucina at La MaMa Umbria, published in 2017. More information: www.davidjdiamond.com.