Lisa Jo Epstein encourages just acts through Just Act, using applied theatre in community development

Philadelphia-based theatre director, educator, and community artist Lisa Jo Epstein has spent 27 years working in the realm of applied theatre. She calls her latest project, Just Act – which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary – a culmination of all of the work she has done over these years.

“Like many people engaged in this applied theatre spectrum, I feel in some regards we were destined to reimagine and create theatre anew,” she says.

Deeply influenced by the time she spent in Paris in the early ’90s working for and studying under world-renowned politically-engaged theatre makers at Le Théâtre du Soleil and Theatre of the Oppressed that shaped her “political spectrum,” Epstein says Just Act “grew out of my own need to have a deeper and more sustained impact in people and policy and planning.”

Just Act is the evolution of a theatre company Epstein started in Philadelphia in 2003 called Gas and Electric Arts, which exclusively performed the work of living women playwrights, did Theatre of the Oppressed work with youth, and offered non-theatre anti-oppression training. The work of Just Act is still story- and theatre-based, but the organization isn’t making theatre in any “traditional” sense, in which people go to a physical space, sit down, and watch something.

As a certified city and community planner, creative placemaking and community engagement have become the cornerstones of the work Epstein does under Just Act.

“I am committed to using my theater skills to growing and deepening our capacity as human beings to interact more effectively,” she says. “Activating and nurturing meaningful dialogue is not easy. We create our programming to support people thinking creatively around injustice and our programming and projects reflect that. It’s really to promote healing and action around these divisive issues.”

Just Act works with both individuals and organizations to offer reformed theatre facilitator training and workshops informed by Theatre of the Oppressed on an array of social justice topics, promote youth action, educate educators, and lead community activation projects with organizational partners, “designing programs for community engagement to nourish the needs of particular organization.”

Epstein refers to it as a “hybrid” of artistic and civic human development that “brings people together to acknowledge our personal and group sticking places and better access our understanding of how we all got here, better access our understanding of how the North American system is like a smog we all breathe in and in order to detoxify ourselves we need different things than focus groups. We rarely see the world how it is but how we’re conditioned to see it. With Just Act, we’re redimensioning ourselves. This is the work of the heart and the body.”

Just Act works with professional groups like attorneys and social workers to identify patterns of oppression that have become the status quo so they can address them and change that status quo. The organization also develops programs for government and nonprofit organizations and schools, as well as offering their own programming like their youth-oriented Youth for Change and Power Girls programs, as well as the post-election People’s Jam on Justice, which encouraged community action through story circles and improvisations addressing injustices like racism in the workplace.

“I am really most interested in being a catalyst for people architecture,” Epstein says. “If we can see that the architecture we fall into most frequently is the status quo, and that architecture is drawn by some humans, then if the status quo is oppressive we can use theatre to see the architecture and we can redraw it in the just way that exists.”

She says we as a society need to grow our stewardship of people again – in this era of Facebook and fake news we have forgotten how to “friend” each other face-to-face.

“Through Just Act we use a lot of applied techniques to create these spaces of opportunity to pause and identify how fractured our relations have become around race, around culture, around socioeconomic disparities,” she says. “We’re using these techniques to re-weave connections and grow empathy and understanding at the pace that the group needs it. This always includes really concrete action planning as well identifying personal and collective ‘just’ acts.”

Just Act is currently working with the Germantown United Community Development Corporation on a project called Germantown Heart & Soul, inviting this Northwest Philadelphia community to participate in story circles that use theatre as a planning tool and capture the wishes, needs, ideas, and concerns of Germantown residents as they share their personal stories of meaningful experiences in Germantown and what they believe is vital for the growth of their community.

To do this, Just Act created an intergenerational Germantown story engagement team trained in story circle facilitations, what Epstein calls a form of improv theatre that pulls from a variety of approaches in making improvised work that gifts back the stories of the people in the room to remind them of the power of their place in the community.

“This is really about finding a way to put the human heart back in city making and city keeping,” says Epstein. “The hope is that we are shifting the way people interact with one another – bringing everyone to the table and creating new tables where people who live in the same section of Germantown but across diverse demographics can interact, and enabling them to see how their stories connect with each other. The CDC then gets all of this data with the soul of what will really serve the community. We believe a shift in the people architecture can have a shift in the physical architecture that gets built.”

Epstein believes there is an artist within each of us. While many of the community members who participate in these story circles are not self-identified “artists,” her work is to help them flex the muscles of their imagination.

“There is a particular way we facilitate so that someone who doesn’t think their story is worthwhile, because they think everyone has that same story, really comes out reenergized,” she says. “It’s sort of like renewing our love affair with our neighborhood and our neighbors. This is the catalyst of the expression of the emotional dimension. We customized and created the whole design and curriculum of our events to support our mission itself, which is focused on business district development. We devote time to listening generatively to people’s goals and challenges, then we design events, workshops, and programs that we think will help them dig deeper into their priorities and challenges but in ways that are unexpected because they are not theatre people.”

While they do collect data on more basic desires of the community – everyday lifestyle wishes like “we want a coffee shop” or “we need more storage facilities” – Epstein says Just Act’s workshops also dig deeper than that, connecting people to people. From there they work with their organizational and policy partners so that the idea of “change” doesn’t just stop at the dialogue level.

“How do we catalyze important conversations amongst residents about our own neighborhood and regrow the neighborhood? There is a really deeply embodiment of innovative ideas that come from the diverse experience of residents who have the lived experience to inform the CDC and city council people what the neighborhood needs.”

Just Act’s next project is with the Philadelphia Association of CDCs funded by the National Endowment for the Arts called Arts Powered Places.

“The project is designed to serve as the community engagement arms for the CDCs, working with the neighborhood advisory committees,” Epstein explains. “We will bring together artists with the neighborhood advisory committees and do workshops with them to enable them to understand each other’s languages and create spaces for them to use that understanding to grow effective, strategic, resident-driven arts-based engagement in neighborhood development.”

Though these are groups of people from very different schools of thought, the intention is that by bringing these groups of unlikely partners together there will be a greater understanding of the strengths of each bringing forth their assets.

“How does a neighborhood advisory committee embrace the assets of the community then take that information back to the community development corporation and enable the CDC to use it?” she asks. “Unlike some creative placemaking approaches that result in public art, our results are going to be in the art of the people and shifting the art of the people architecture.”

She also says that in order to reweave connections in the community, we must lean into the discomfort that comes from taking such deep dives into areas of potential conflict.

“When we teach workshops we ask people to define ‘conflict,'” says Epstein. “Usually it’s all negative, but when you think about it democracy that should be the ultimate form of conflict, where different opinions exist together. Our activities create strategies to advance interpersonal understanding and enable people to be able to sit in the heat of a conflict without it becoming a bonfire.”