Headshot of Joan Hurwit Joan Marie Hurwit
M.A. Theatre 2010


Joan Marie Hurwit

Joan Marie Hurwit graduated from the M.A. Theatre program in 2010 and has since been living and working in Los Angeles. Last fall (2015), she embarked on a self-organized, nationwide research exploration into art as therapy in communities that are coping with traumatic events. Here, she discusses her inspiration for the New Works Research Project and how her experiences as a theatre student at SDSU shaped her career and endeavors.

You’ve started working on a unique, self-directed research project surrounding the generation of art in communities that are coping with some form of trauma. Two questions: first, what made you think of doing this project? Second, what steps did you take to make this a reality for yourself?

In 2007, I was a student at SDSU when nine wildfires broke out across the county. After packing and evacuating my own apartment, I went to Qualcomm Stadium to volunteer for the thousands of people who were displaced. The community had already turned out so many volunteers that they were turning people away. So I quickly figured out what broke college kids could offer: live performance. I called twenty comedy improviser friends to perform, inviting evacuees to our makeshift stage. I called it “Comedy Relief” and it was by far one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It got me thinking about the value of responding to issues in struggling communities by providing a safe space to creatively process trauma.

The New Works Research project is a year-long, nationwide exploration of how we, as a society, can use the arts to serve communities in distress. I am collecting data, observing practices, and conducting interviews with arts organizations that address current events and community issues, and aid-based organizations that use arts programming to assist in the recovery process of their clients. The big picture goal is to develop a new program— an emergency arts action relief effort that will act similarly to the American Red Cross in times of crisis, but with creative resources and outlets.

This is my passion project and I am motivated everyday by the awful stories I read in the news. I saved up enough to finance myself for a year of travel, left my faculty position at a local college, and packed my bags. (See my video blog from Day One, Joan on the Road.)

Shelley Orr, who was my dramaturgy professor at SDSU, has been an invaluable mentor in supporting the project. It’s been tricky to get funding, as the project is constantly evolving. So I have been experimenting with different ways of sharing my experiences via my website Polka Dots and Picometers: HowlRound is publishing my travelogue series, I created a new podcast (Brunch with Strangers) that features real people having honest conversations about issues explored in the research, I began video blogging, and I just began a short documentary about peoples’ transformative relationships with the arts.

In what year did you graduate from the M.A. Theatre Arts program? Are there any ways that your studies in the program have impacted your career trajectory since?

After an accelerated three-year undergraduate career, I jumped at the chance to continue my studies in the M.A. program. Unfortunately, my family came upon some rough times; we lost four people in four years. When my cousin passed away the semester I planned to start my thesis, I told D.J. Hopkins, my graduate advisor at the time, that feared I wouldn’t finish my degree. He asked me: “Okay, what can you do?”  I had an idea for a play about my family, but I didn’t know how to write a play. I’d never taken a class. I am not a playwright. “Great,” he said. “So you’re going to write a play.” And that was that.

He later told me he had expected a one-act, but I gave him a 126-page, two-act play. We qualified it academically by treating it as a case study on art as therapy, specifically playwriting as grief therapy. I am a proud product of art as therapy, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to explore this type of work in the M.A. program. I’ve always known that theatre is transcendent and powerful, but my thesis project in 2010 directly informed the work I do today.

Finally, what is your fondest memory of SDSU?

I had the honor of putting my hands on a lot of different plays at SDSU as an actor, director, dramaturg, choreographer, and set designer. My favorite piece, however, was The Laramie Project.

It was fall of 2008. I was starting my graduate degree, playing Nora in a 1950s adaptation of Doll House, first-time dramaturging Desire Under the Elms, playing on an improv team, and working three jobs, and I came to the realization that October was the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. I went to the Theatre Department heads and made my pitch: I wanted to direct a staged reading of The Laramie Project on the Don Powell main stage for a one-night engagement.

They kindly reminded that I was overextending myself, but my passion won out. I had nine incredibly talented and diverse students playing about six characters each. For such a bare-boned production, it was seamlessly-orchestrated staged reading, until the final scene.

The character Doc describes how the last thing that Matthew Shepard saw was the “shimmering lights” of Laramie, Wyoming. My direction to the actors was simply this: light your tea candles, come together at the front of the stage, and after the final line the lights will fade so we can see the shimmering lights. Blow them out whenever you feel ready. I still get chills thinking about it. In a perfectly unplanned staggering sequence, the candles were blown out. Patty, who was born with a degenerative blindness, was center stage and just happened to blow out her candle last. The audience collectively gasped; it was one of the most haunting and breathtaking things I’ve ever witnessed in a theatre. People later asked me how we managed to nail such a surreal moment, but I couldn’t take the credit. That’s the power of live performance and producing ambitious, beautiful pieces with narratives worth sharing.