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.
Even though I’m a theater artist, and I believe that theater has power, I do sometimes doubt whether it’s really as helpful and necessary as other things in our lives. It takes so much effort to convince people that it is, first of all. It can get exhausting, the constant vigilance we theater makers have to maintain lest the people in our lives (family, friends, funders) forget that what we’re spending our time doing is valid. It can get exhausting, goading people into coming to shows, into supporting projects, into getting involved. And it doesn’t help to recognize that it’s a systemic social issue: our country, underpinned and motored by capitalist ideals, doesn’t value theater because theater doesn’t make money—that’s one way to look at it. Here’s another: our society doesn’t see theater as necessary to life because theater just doesn’t make money.
Oh wait I already said that.
With the H.E.A.T. collective, Jessica has positioned theater as a necessary fourth of a super-quad, along with healing, education, activism. So OK, that’s great. I love that.
But what are the implications of the inclusion? What does it really mean? I never stopped to think about it much. If Jessica put it there, it should be there. …Right?
So when I was invited to write a piece for this blog, I figured I’d use it as a chance to ask: Why include it at all? What do Activism, healing, and education need from theater?
Here are three answers I’ve come up with so far:
THEATER IS STORY
When you consider the concepts of healing, education, and activism, they stay pretty abstract until you attach each to a story. We have to know what we’re doing these things for and about: what we’re healing and why it’s in need; what we’re educating and how it will impact the student; what story are we activating against, what story are we coalescing our activation around? None of these three extremely necessary aspects of living in community can exist without the glue of story. Narrative glue. That’s one thing theater gives us.
THEATER IS COMMUNITY
Theater can’t happen without others, without gathering, without shared investment in a subject matter. Making it the ‘T’ of H.E.A.T. means that community is the adhesive, the context, the requirement for the H, E, and A. Healing, education, and activism can’t happen without others. It is absolutely necessary.
THEATER IS CREATIVE.
Theater is a generative act. We theater artists make things. We turn ideas into matter. We show how ideas matter. We create the possibility for these ideas to be heard, to be seen, to be shared. Theater’s inclusion in the H.E.A.T. super-quad asks us to remember that healing is also a creative act; education is a creative act; activism is a creative act.
The four aspects of the H.E.A.T. collective each brings something into being, generating the new realities we need to keep moving forward—as individuals, as communities, as a country. And by recognizing that each aspect is integral to the success of the others, and that theater is one of those integral aspects, I realize that I have been doing H.E.A.T. collective work for a long time without even realizing it.
The project I’m thinking about is called MILTON—a performance and community engagement experiment in five small towns named Milton around the country. My company PearlDamour launched the project as a way to heal something for ourselves: our broken relationship to the country we lived in. We have been living and working in our liberal, urban bubble and wanted to go out into the U.S. and educate ourselves about who really lived there and what they thought and cared about it. What would we learn about them, about ourselves, about what it means to be an American today? Our activist impulses led us to enter into communities as strangers, as artists, and simply pay attention, remain curious, stay present, and let a relationship (and ultimately a play) grow.
You can see some records of our project on the Milton Website. We, and the theater we made, played temporary but important roles in the eco-systems of 3 of the 5 Miltons we visited. And we, and the Miltonians we worked with, were changed by the experience. Healing happened in unexpected ways and unexpected places, both during the show and in the many conversations we had as we made it or reflected upon it. Healing happened in community as well, as a result of programs that grew up around the project, some catalyzed by us, others by community members. Education occurred on every level: civic history, town politics, and person-to-person, overturning assumptions and connecting across divide. Activism bubbled up amongst community members empowered by our project. In one of the Miltons, the tiny town of Milton, NC, community-members launched an annual Street Fair in conjunction with our project that continues today and brings much needed attention and cohesion to the town.
The impact of MILTON would have been far less had we left out the theater. In fact, it was the theater in the project, or us interacting as the theater artists we are, that allowed the healing, activism and education to occur.
Theater, as it turns out, and as Jessica so clearly asserts with the establishment of this collective, is necessary after all.
Katie Pearl is an Obie Award-winning theater artist and co-Artistic Director of the interdisciplinary performance company PearlDamour. PearlDamour’s work has been supported by four MAP Fund, two NEA, and a Creative Capital Award, among others. Pearl was the 2017 Quinn Martin Guest Chair of Directing at UCSD, a 2016 Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton and a visiting lecturer of Socially Engaged Art at Harvard. Drama League Directing Fellow, member SDC. katiepearl.com, pearldamour.com