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 all began with a question. 

A man was sitting next to me at an immersive experimental theatre performance in Prague. There was a large map taped to the table in front of us. Participants were asked to add or color their countries of home and work. I got busy drawing The Middle East and India on one side of the flat spectrum of the world and the United States on the other. The man watched with curiosity as I ran around the table trying to establish my geography. He asked me, ‘You work all over the world, don’t you think, since The Czech Republic is not a racist country, that we should keep refugees out so we don’t become racists?’. I was shocked by the question. I repeated it to several people over the next few days and discovered that the man’s query was a not atypical of the general response to the growing refugee crisis in Europe. By asking other Czech citizens about their opinions regarding refugees from Arab and Asian countries, I uncovered a surprising amount of animosity for the ‘other’. One woman I spoke to said, and I am paraphrasing here, ‘The Vietnamese are OK, the gypsies are horrible but Muslims want to kill us and must be kept out’. I couldn’t understand how this seemingly friendly country, which had welcomed me so warmly, was harbouring so much hate especially when their refugee numbers from any country are quite low compared to most of Europe. Then a Czech colleague hit the nail on the head. He said: ‘In the basement of The Hate you will always find The Fear’.

I began to wonder whether fear really is at the root of most intolerance and conflict, and if people get angry before even realizing they are afraid. San Suu Kuy  who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her fearless work advocating for human rights in Burma claims, ‘It is not power that corrupts but fear’. But fear is not only the cause of misery, it is also our way out of it. As John Paul Lederach observed, we must reach out to those we fear and imagine the possibilities. Only then can we overcome fear and hatred. The Fear Project was born out of my investigation into fear as a core motivator for xenophobia and, like VT and ethnodrama, it is a theatrical action based on interviews. The play is an ensemble piece that tells stories about fear and includes a combination of theatrical styles: choral poetry made from verbatim interviews, direct address monologues, and scenes. The encounter between the artist and audience includes pre-show interviews by the performers and a post- show discussion led by the artistic team. The goals are: to provide a safe space for all participants including artists and audiences; to build a forum to share our fears and become aware of the fears of others; to allow an experience of individual and community healing; to encourage the development of solutions to personal and social challenges; to create and invite others to witness vibrant and meaningful theatre.

The process is divided evenly between ensemble collaboration and direction by a lead writer and director. My roles include playwright, director, drama therapist, interviewer, educator, community builder and, sometimes, performer. The Fear Project process always evolves over these twelve stages:

1. Gather collaborators within community 

2. Training interviewers

3. Interviews

4. Choral poem

5. Reading/discussion/improvisation

6. Writing family scenes and monologues

7. Reading/discussion/improvisation

8. Write additional scenes

9. Rehearsal: character development, staging, etc.

10. Interviews

11. Performance

12. Audience discussion

The play is reinvented in each location with new interviews, new brainstorming, new devising, a new script, and new staging. So far, The Fear Project has been reinvented four times: in New York, in Prague, at The University of Wisconsin, and in Kolkata, India. 

The first stage of the process involves gathering the company who will conduct the interviews, collaborate on the creation of the script, perform the play and engage in the final discussion. Each person agrees to participate in all the tasks: seek out interviewees, conduct interviews, engage in an in-depth theatrical devising process, participate in performances, contribute to post show discussions, and to practice the four approaches of the H.E.A.T Collective. Some participants come on board as citizen volunteers although we have given stipends whenever funding is available. The project changes with each incarnation, despite the same process and the same form, not just because the interviewees and the audiences vary, but also because the company (performer, interviewers, collaborators) is different each time. Prior to beginning the interviews, I lead a short training with the company that covers the guidelines for interviewing.

The interviews last fifteen to thirty minutes each. The interviewer sets up the agreements, asks the questions (one to two minutes per questions) and then creates closure (see below). I ask that interviewees not be interrupted in mid flow of thought or mid-sentence. We keep the time limit as a gentle pressure, not a hard and fast law. The interviews can take place in person (preferred) or over the phone. These specific details are incorporated into the choral poem that is later developed from interviews. The interviews can be collected with audio recording or written notes. The interviews must be transcribed before they are sent to me with as much accuracy as possible.

I spent a few weeks arriving at the chosen questions that would evoke honest answers about fear from the interviewees. I wanted to find questions that would work across different demographics and still invite specificity without leading the interviewee. I couldn’t ask open questions as the premise of the project already supposes that everyone experiences fear of some kind. I tested questions with my Ph.D. cohort, my theatre and drama therapy friends, and my international colleagues in informal focus groups. I finally chose thirteen questions. All interviewers ask the thirteen questions in the following order:

1 What are you afraid of?

2. Who are you afraid of?  

3. Where are you afraid?  

4. How do you react to fear? 

5. How do you conquer fear?  

6. What is the enemy?

7. Who is the enemy?

8. Where is the enemy? 

9. How do you react to the enemy?

10. What do you do to conquer hate? 

11. Who is the stranger? 

12. What is home?

13. How do you feel about your country? 

I offer instructions to the interviewers to have a small closure process after each interview including thanking the interviewees for their time, and checking in that the questions did not stir up unbearable emotions. We inform people that individual follow up sessions with me are available for interviewers and interviewees if more processing is needed. The interviews are then sent to me and the next stage of the process begins.

The structure of the FEAR script is made up of five parts: the interviews presented as choral poetry, family scenes, supplemental scenes, direct address monologues that reveal the character’s inner voices, and embedded audience interviews. The first stage of the devising process is building the choral poem. Once the interviews are collected I organize them by question, into thirteen groups. Then I craft them into a choral poem. The choral poem brings a unity to the diverse voices and stories in the text. 

Here we arrive at an important and perhaps somewhat controversial fork in the road. The Fear Project is an artful interpretation of verbatim text organized with collaboration through one voice. This reasoning is specific to my orientation as a practitioner. I balance community building and therapeutic goals with the creation of well-made plays: plays created with clear characters, a dramatic arc, strong structure (stasis, happening, crisis, climax, resolution) and poetic voices. I believe that the back and forth collaboration between ensemble input and one lead writer/editor make for a high-quality script. In my opinion, the better the script the stronger the effectiveness of the full experience.

The first thing I do is to play with the words on the page using performative writing. I then work with poetic voice, including scansion, rhythm and voice. I hear the poem both inside my mind and by reading out loud and make decisions about repetition and flow, as well as which voices should say which words. I score it like music for the number of voices I am working with. I use my knowledge of those voices as well as a sense of balancing their lines equally so it is truly an ensemble performance. I decide what interview sentences will be included or excluded. For instance, if three people say, ‘the loss of my healthcare’, I may fold those answers into one response or I may decide to repeat a certain line or word a number of times 

The next step in the devising process is for the actors to read the choral poem aloud and respond to it. Here is where the performers, who have also been the interviewers, reflect on their experiences during the process of conducting interviews, they respond to both the thirteen questions and reflect on their own life experiences. They also respond to the answers they have received and I get feedback and information about the process and the community we’ve been working within. For instance, in one session after reading the choral poem, an actor talked about her recent split with her adult siblings, another remembered her fear of being bullied in school, and another recalled the first time he realized as a little boy that he was going to die. Another participant had a particularly intense connection with one of her interviewees and another expressed a political rage and a desire to throw things at walls. I guide the performers through improvisations based on these responses and then deepen discussion. The work we do together is developed into the scenes and monologues in Part Two of the script devising process.

In the next phase of the process I write the family scenes and the monologues based on the discussions and improvisations conducted after the reading of the choral poem. Since the fiercest microcosm of the larger world can often be found around a family table, there is always a family at the centre of The Fear Project script. Our cast in The Czech Republic reported generational chasms in their own homes in response to the refugee crisis, and in the New York group members wept in our first meetings about family members who had broken with them over the recent election. One colleague whose mother had voted for Trump said, ‘you talk about our nation breaking apart over this election – what about families?’ In India, the actors spoke openly about the need to keep families together by keeping youth from leaving the area and keeping women family members safe.

Theatre is the most integrative of all the arts: it can, and often does, include singing, dancing, paint- ing, sculpture, storytelling, music, puppetry, poetry and, of course, the art of acting. It can be argued that there is an innate healing function in theatre that goes all the way back to its origins in human culture  It is the art form closest to life, an “imitation” of life; its purpose being “. . . to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” . Theatre is a celebration of life in all its light and darkness, and, as this article attempts to demon- strate, the art of theatre, per se, can be shaped into a powerful vehicle for therapy that positively effects psychological well-being. 

Drama therapist Susana Pendzik, in her discussion of the transcendental aspects of performance, provides a good, succinct definition: “This approach involves the therapeutic development of a play and its presentation in front of an audience” Theatre- a celebration of life in all its light and darkness- a powerful vehicle for possibility effecting psychological well-being.

The FEAR Project attempts to have a positive psychological effect on the participants (artists and audiences) but the context of the experience is theatrical and up until now held in theatrical or educational settings. There is no therapeutic contract with the audience or the artistic collaborators; therefore, any psychological outcome is an indirect result of witnessing and/or participating in the artistic project. The post show discussions, which are an integral part of The FEAR Project often bring up strong emotions, necessitate skilled moderation. Audiences come to the theatre for many reasons, to escape, to enjoy, and to learn. For theatre to be therapeutic does the audience have to want to be changed or healed? 

Drama Therapy is involvement in a dramatic event with healing intentions. Theatre methods intersect with therapeutic practice when the telling of personal stories merges with public performance. One cannot ponder the question “what are you afraid of?” without introspection. The interviews tell the truth about what individuals fear. Augusto Boal in describing how he understood the pedagogy of fear said, “truth is therapeutic” .  

I first developed the project in Prague at The Alfred Theatre, and then created a version of the play at the Sagbahar Theatre Festival in Kolkata, India, the next variation of The Fear Project was developed through a US State Department Arts Envoy grant and performed throughout the Czech Republic. It was produced in New York at La MaMa with Artists Rise Up New York and at Dixon Place in conjunction with the International Human Rights Arts Festival. It was also developed at The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. I have taught workshops in The Fear Project at The North American Drama Therapy Association conference, a Cultural Diplomacy session at the United Nations, and at the International Leadership Association conference. The questions have been used to develop original work at La Mama’s Director’s Symposium in Umbria, Italy. My cast from The Czech Republic is developing The Fear Project for high school audiences, Roma youth, and at-risk young adults. I am hopeful that others will use the questions, the format and the process to spread the opportunity for connection and the opportunity for dialogue. I think this project could work in many settings I am interested in bringing it to areas within the United States where the divides between red and blue, black and white, man and woman are creating unhappy chasms. I think The Fear Project is better suited to be conducted by artists or drama therapists than researchers who have not had experience conducting emotionally charged research using creative tools, but with brief trainings, I think this work can be led and developed by anyone.

In the end, the question at the heart of this project was can a theatrical event like The Fear Project inspire audiences and participants to becomes more aware of their fears and to address them? John Paul Lederach states, ‘If we are to survive as a global community we must understand the imperative nature of giving space and to the moral imagination in all human affairs [Ö] we must imagine beyond what is seen’. By exploring diverse sides of the political spectrum through interviews and fictional characters, I believe we can imagine empathy and move towards healing our fear of the other.  

In his book on leadership, Senge (1994) describes tribes of Northern KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where the typical salutation is ‘Sawu Bona’ instead of ‘Hello’. The phrase means ‘I see you’. The common rejoinder is ‘Sikhona’ which means ‘I am here’. In this culture, until someone sees you, you do not exist. From the conversations I have had with artistic collaborators and people who have been interviewed, I have heard many accounts that lead me to believe that both the interviewee and the interviewer in The Fear Project have a profound experience of being seen. A. G. Johnson stated, ‘Of all human needs, few are as powerful as the need to be seen, included, and accepted by other people’  

The desire for personal change can be born out of fear, but the ability to construct and maintain positive change must be supported by truth. Without looking at our feelings of fear and anger we cannot move beyond them. The Fear Project allows artists and audiences to face feelings and situations they may have long buried. After truth, the next requirement of change is hope. Hope can be found in community with fellows who empower each other by listening. Passive powerlessness, which undercuts resistance, and leads to isolation and the experience of feeling inadequate and impotent. But the rigorous work of imagining, which is a central tool of theater making and drama therapy, opens people to potentially peaceful and beautiful change. The Fear Project inspires collaborative action. As theatre practitioners and drama therapists, activists and educators we can encourage an imaginative exploration of even the darkest truths to facilitate communication and transformation. We are not afraid, even of fear. 

It all begins with a question.


Jessica Litwak is an Internationally recognized theatre educator, playwright, director, performer, puppet builder and drama therapist. She is the Artistic Director of The H.E.A.T. Collective and The New Generation Theatre Ensemble for Youth, and the founder of Artists Rise Up New York. Her plays include The Emma Goldman Trilogy, Wider Than The Sky, the FEAR Project, Secret Agents and My Heart is in the East. Her work is published by No Passport Press, Smith & Krause, Applause Books and The New York Times. Litwak is a core member of Theatre Without Borders, a PhD in Theatre For Social Change, and a Fulbright Scholar.