Alumni Spotlight | Jessica Litwak (Theatre '89)

Jessica LitwakWas there a specific faculty member or peer that especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

I am old school (literally) and Howard Stein was my mentor. He was the most generous, enthusiastic and kind professor I have ever met and was rigorous with us playwrights. He also championed us wholeheartedly. How amazing it was to have a teacher believe in you so deeply, not just your talent and perseverance, but your heart, soul and even the charming idiosyncrasies of your mistakes.

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

It framed my work as a playwright and offered me not only a theatrical community but a sense of the legacy of theatremakers I was both following and leading.

What were the most pressing social/political issues on the minds of the students when you were here?

While I was at Columbia, my one woman play Emma Goldman, Love, Anarchy and Other Affairs was directed by Anne Bogart and produced at The Women's Project in a series of plays about women heroes. It was a time when women's rights were very much on the table. Also, the Berlin Wall had just come down and we were looking at a brand new world in terms of the end of the Cold War. That change affected us in ways both personal and artistic. Some of my theatre friends flocked to Berlin to be a part of the street party. We were still dealing with the AIDS epidemic. My cousin Ezra Litwak (there is a screenwriting award in his name at the CU Film Department) died of AIDS just shortly after I graduated, so that was a social issue very much on my mind and on the minds of my colleagues.

If you could revisit any piece you created during your time at the School of the Arts, which would it be? Why?

I wrote a play directed by Karin Coonrod about a honeymoon that coincided with a ritual suicide pact on the site of an ancient Mayan ruin. (I got married in my first year of graduate school.) If I could find it, I would rewrite it, but I think it was written on a typewriter and is gone for good. I would be interested in working on it again because I think the blend of cultures was interesting, the love story honest and the language poetic, but I think I was too young of a writer to finesse chaos into collage. I would also love to revisit a Lorca festival that Howard let me create. It was in honor of his birthday. I told Howard, "I need to act," and he said, "I want you to say I need to write." (This was before the Columbia MFA program had an acting component.) But the need to both act and write never diminished. I still want both.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

My playwriting class is my most fond memory. The class was small was held around a table with Howard at the helm. We threw ideas back and forth and responded to each other's work and to the books of great plays, to which Howard demanded honest and insightful response. Although I remember a wonderful Shakespeare class, and a fantastic class in Hitchcock, Welles and Reed taught by Andrew Sarris in the Film department. We also had our weekly class with Gerald Shoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs at The Shubert Organization offices. Being a "downtown" experimental theatre revolutionary, I was not as respectful as I should have been, and often wish I could take that course now, when I could make better use of it.
About Jessica Litwak
Jessica Litwak, Ph.D, is a seasoned theatre arts professional focused specifically on theatre for social change and community engagement. She is a recognized leader in the Field with over 30 years experience. She is playwright, educator, actor, Registered Drama Therapist, and a trained practitioner of Playback, Psychodrama, and Theatre of the Oppressed. She is the Artistic Director of The H.E.A.T. Collective and The New Generation Theatre Ensemble. Her collection of plays, Wider Than the Sky and Other Plays was published by No Passport Press. Other work has been published by TCG, Applause Books, Smith and Krause, and The New York Times. Plays include: Dream Acts, The Emma Goldman Trilogy: Love Anarchy and Other Affairs, The Snake and The Falcon, Nobody Is Sleeping and A Pirate’s Lullaby (Rattlestick Theater and at The Goodman Theatre); The Promised Land, produced in Budapest and New York; Secret Agents  and Victory Dance (The Renberg Theatre, and DR2); Terrible Virtue (The Lark and The Culture Project); and Wider Than The Sky (The Lark, UCONN, Boston Museum of Science, Epic Theatre). Her plays for youth include GRIM, Postcards from Canterbury, The Great Journey Home, Verona High and War: An American Dream (written and directed by Litwak), and have been produced in New York and Massachusetts. Her play The Moons of Jupiter was produced in Massachusetts and Colorado. Litwak has performed on stages across the U.S. and in Europe.  Litwak has taught theatre at San Francisco State University, the Theatre Academy at Los Angeles City College, Stella Adler Academy, Marymount Manhattan College, Columbia, NYU, Lesley University, Whitman College and Naropa University and in Iraq, Lebanon, India, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Scotland, England and Italy. She has conducted seminars for The Global Mobility Symposium, The World Economic Forum, Performing The World, The North American Drama Therapy Association Conference, and The International Peace and Reach Association Conference. Litwak is a core member of Theatre Without Borders. She is a Fulbright Specialist Scholar.
Dr. Litwak from New York, New York has been awarded a PhD in Leadership and Change from Antioch University. Dr. Litwak’s dissertation titled: My Heart is in the East: Exploring Theater as a Vehicle for Change, Inspired by the Poetic Performances of Ancient Andalucía addresses her research question “How Do I Inspire Personal and Social Change Through My Theater Practice?”  Dr. Litwak implements the theory and practice of H.E.A.T., a fusion theater system, combining use of theater arts as healing practice, educational asset, activist tool and art form. She researches different ways that theater can affect change, focusing specifically on the use of history in performance. In addition, Dr. Litwak dramatically interprets a period of history in which performance and poetry contributed to change, utilizing qualitative methods that include performance ethnography, autoethnography, arts-based research and historical research. Her dissertation is a bricolage, combining scholarly chapters, performative writing and scripted theater. The work explores ways of employing theater as a change agent by using history as an inspiration.

Dr. Litwak received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from New York University, New York, NY and her Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University, New York, NY. She is an educator, actor, registered drama therapist and playwright. Her work has been published by No Passport Press, TCG, Applause Books, Smith and Krause and The New York Times.

Access Dr. Litwak’s full dissertation here.
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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.