For Dr. Jessica Litwak—a drama therapist, actor, and 2015 graduate of Antioch University’s Leadership and Change doctorate program—theatre is more than an art form, it is a vehicle for social change and healing from trauma and conflict.
Litwak’s career has taken her to classrooms and stages across the globe, teaching courses in acting and drama therapy, and performing plays that she has written, always with a lens of activism driven by her inspiration—writer Emma Goldman.
Litwak first learned about Goldman when she was studying acting at NYU and was cast to play the early 20th-century anarchist writer in a play that she also wrote.
“Courage isn’t born in us, we can choose it. We can be worried every day and still choose courageous acts,” said Litwak, quoting from Goldman.
Litwak went on to write a play about Goldman, and has embodied Goldman on stage in various productions throughout her career.
Following her motivation to use art to engage social justice, Litwak started collaborating with the organization, Theatre Without Borders, about 10 years ago, traveling to conflict zones where she uses “theatre as a way of transformation.”
Litwak said she has written plays about “many, many things” but she always begins with “an intense period of research.”
Litwak said it is difficult to say which of her dozens of works she is most proud of, but the play that she wrote as part of her research at Antioch, “My Heart is in the East,” stands out as one of them. In the piece, which she has performed across the United States, and recently in the UK, combines activism, arts, and healing. It is as a duet between a Muslim artist and Litwak, who is Jewish, and takes the audience on a journey from modern-day Iraq to ancient Cordoba, Spain and a period 1,000 years ago known as La Convivencia — which is considered a golden age of artistic expression and peace among Muslims and Jews.
In 2005, Litwak founded HEAT (Healing, Education, Activism, Theatre) to organize workshops and performances that focus on socially-engaged theatre. That work aligns with her motivation to earn a degree at Antioch to use her background to inspire creatives to be activists.
One of Litwak’s major works at HEAT is the Fear Project, where she follows a specific creative process that involves the community. Litwak starts by interviewing people with 13 questions that are always the same, such as: ‘How do you react to fear?’ The questions are however focused on a different central issue, like Litwak’s recent work about gun violence and a lockdown at a high school. The answers are then combined to create a choral poem, and actors read the poem during workshops. From those experiences, Litwak writes a play, with choral voices interjected throughout the piece.
Litwak has taken the Fear Project to New York, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and even the Czech Republic. Before the performances, the audience will also be asked to answer the 13 questions, which will then be read by actors. Litwak says this is a way to truly engage the audience, get them to think more deeply about the issues that are being presented to them, and enact change.
“Theatre is the way I address issues of social justice and personal growth. To me, theatre can be used as creative leadership to bring about both personal and social change,” said Litwak.