Jessica Litwak founder of The H.E.A.T Collective

Jessica Litwak founder of The H.E.A.T Collective



H.E.A.T. History 

A personal Story for Artistic Director Jessica Litwak: 

The theatre saved my life. I was nearly a high school drop-out heading down a very dark path. McTernan the chorus teacher who directed all the school plays which I never would have had the confidence to audition for, saved my life with two lines quickly scribbled on a piece of scratch paper: "Dear Jessica," 

How did she know my name? I was in one of her classes, but I wasn't a very good singer and I always stood in the back. 

"You seem to have a flair for the dramatic. Could you meet with Peggy and Ulysses and help them work on their scene from Guys and Dolls?" 

She gave me my first directing job and raised my self-esteem many notches above negative 20 where it had plateaued. How can I remember that note after forty years? It was the first time someone actually told me I was good at something. 

It wasn't an instant transformation of course, but the note slowly led to the next step. An improvisation group for troubled teens. In the theatre I found other maverick freaks who were surviving the outskirts and successfully negotiating society as artists. I found home. Acting was my first real love. I moved to New York, studied hard, became an actress. This was wonderful: I loved the craft with my whole heart. To support myself I became a massage therapist and there were moments (particularly when I experienced heartache in the theatre) when I wondered if I shouldn’t become a healer. Then I got some jobs teaching acting in The New York City Schools and eventually as aTenure Track professor in a University Theatre Department. I came to love the work of being an educator, which was a new skill entirely. Then I started experiencing challenges in the acting business, one producer told me “You are not pretty enough to be young.” A casting director encouraged me to smoke and drink a lot, so I could age more quickly and grow into the roles I was right for. Instead I decided to write roles for myself. Four one woman plays ensued. I began to realize that I had all this training as an actor (a BFA in acting, time at The Royal Academy, 2 years at a studio with the Meisner technique...) and I really didn’t know anything about writing, so I applied and got into the MFA program at Columbia as a Playwright. I then began to identify as a writer, but couldn’t give up acting, and still made my living as a teacher. I did time in Los Angeles as a screenwriter nut ended up doing theatre and getting another professorship in an acting department. One day, frustrated by the narcissism of the theatre industry, I wandered into a Drama Therapy conference and was completely bowled over by the fact that people were identifying themselves, not by their professional accomplishments or their connections, but by the populations they served. I became a Drama Therapist (which involved many more years of study and certification) and suddenly I was a healer again. Then I had a terrible accident and was bed bound for many weeks while people from the theatre and drama therapy community came to visit with me. One friend from La MaMa ETC (where I had worked on and off since I was 20 years old) came to see me, sat at the end of my bed and told me about a group called Theatre Without Borders that worked with theatre on a global level fostering communication and understanding between cultures through theatre work. I joined up and was soon traveling to represent TWB in places like Iraq and Europe. I continued working in the Middle East as a Global Practitioner, acting, writing, teaching and using drama therapy techniques to work with communities in conflict. At one point I learned how to build puppets and began to incorporate them into the work. During this time, I was working on my PhD in Leadership with a focus on theatre as a vehicle for personal and social change. I was a Theatre Artist, an Activist, Healer, Educator. It seemed clear to me, but I was having trouble explaining it to others. And this inability to communicate my varied roles was making it hard to get work in the world, especially in the U.S. where people appreciate it if you exist in a clearly labeled box. I kept asking myself: How do I put this all together? Where do I fit? How could I be all these things with equal skill and passion? Then two things occurred, well two conversations really. 

The first conversation was with a Life Coach. After listening to me struggling with my identity, she told me this: “Your problem is you are trying to be a planet. You are trying to find a solar system to belong to. Stop trying. You are not a planet. You are a sun. So just be the sun out there. Brave and alone. Shine. The planets will begin to circle when you get your heat going.” 

The second conversation was with a friend and colleague to whom I confided. “How do I make people understand that I can be more than one thing, I use four things in my work: healing, education activism and theatre?” She looked at me and grinned. She said: “that spells heat.” 

HEAT born that day as an idea, and it has become a practice as the umbrella for all of my work. That is the story of my personal change, now for the social change that H.E.A.T. aspires to inspire: 

H.E.A.T. NOW: The collective collaborates, produces, hosts, invites, envisions and offers socially engaged performances, workshops and community events – we build collectives wherever we create. H.E.A.T. exists for people to experience good theatre in performance and in education as art and/or healing and/or social activism. It’s for people who are focused on one thing or an all of it. H.E.A.T. is for people who are looking to enhance their skills as theatre artists and those who are interested in developing their theatre work to include social justice and/or drama therapy. Or people who don’t identify as artists to learn how to use theatre as a vehicle for personal and social change. H.E.A.T. is for people like me who hear a multi-layered calling and want to experience a freedom of expression in the support of a collective of fellow travelers. A completely inclusive environment H.E.A.T. is for everyone who is curious. 

H.E.A.T. in the FUTURE 

We are seeking a HOME, A CENTER, where we can continue developing this method of practice and provide inspiration, sanctuary, education, entertainment and community.