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.
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 & Company, Beyond 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.
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.