Our 25 Year Journey of Hope and Compassion

By Debe Edden, Heartsparkle Players’ Founder and Artistic and Managing Director

In 1981 at the bottom of the Puget Sound in Olympia, Washington in the United States – an actor, a bus driver, two teachers, and several community activists wrote and performed a personal safety play for children. At this time adults were beginning to talk about sexual abuse – its impact on survivors and the need for sexual abuse prevention.  We performed our interactive plays throughout our state for hundreds of children. This was when the Heartsparkle Players first came into being.

Ten years later educators asked us to address bullying in elementary and middle schools. I wanted to respond to their request but I did not want to write a didactic piece. I wanted the students to relate to one another, to think, to make connections and to feel.

One day at my alma mater, The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, I saw a flier for a Playback Theatre performance for students. I didn’t know what this Playback Theatre was but something drew me to the performance – fate? Intuition? Leticia Nieto, an academic advisor at the time, conducted. The students told stories about their college life – there was laughter, deep listening and then the playing back.  I was captivated and inspired. I had found what I was looking for. I was an actor, an activist, a teacher and now I would become a Playback actor and conductor.  I jumped right in and began to work with Leticia and her troupe. They generously welcomed me. I also auditioned actors for the Heartsparkle Players with the focus on creating Playback performances to build empathy and compassion in schools. Students would tell their stories, students would hear one another, students would think and feel.

I wanted to know more and I wanted to learn from the founders, Jo, Jonathan and Judy, so in 1993 I went to the School of Playback Theatre held at that time at Vassar College in New York. I met people from all over the world. We worked and played during the day and in the evening we sang, shared our lives and went on adventures.  I made friends from around the states and around the globe. Several years later I graduated from the school.

Back, in Olympia, the Heartsparkle Players received community grants and a corporate grant from Target Stores to provide Playback Theatre performances in schools. It has always been a value of our company to pay actors so the grants funded their wages.

In the past 25 years we’ve conducted over a thousand performances. This includes our public performances at the same venue, a local fair trade café and store called Traditions, for 18 years! When we began our public performances, I had this idea to collaborate with groups who were doing “good” work in our community.  Over the years we’ve collaborated with well over 125 groups. We highlight the work they do by asking them to develop a theme with us; a theme specific enough to fit their organization, but broad enough so anyone can tell a story. 
Examples include: Stories of Knowing Our Own Worth with Parents Organizing for Welfare and Economic Rights; Stories of Bearing Witness with a volunteer driven hospice house for people living without a home; Stories of Finding Our Strengths with a farm-based youth mentoring program; Stories of Generations Connecting with Gateways for Incarcerated Youth, an organization re-engaging incarcerated youth in learning and in community. This plan brings us new audience members and highlights the hopeful things people are doing to promote justice. We highlight the hope without ignoring the injustices.  We give them time to talk about their work and a $50.00 donation from the door proceeds. We never know how much we will make on any given night because we never turn anyone away.  We have always been blessed with having enough. Our public performances are our gift to our community.

Eighteen is a special number for us. Five of us having been in the Heartsparkle Players for 18 years, and for 18 years we have been doing Playback with the Thunders, young adults with a spectrum of experiences and abilities. We developed the Compassionate Action Project (CAP) with the Thunders and have been performing for 5th graders. The students tell stories of times they were compassionate toward someone and times someone was compassionate toward them. We talk about compassion as an action and how it feels to be kind and to be the recipient of kindness.  Stories include: parents being deployed, divorce, assisting a grandparent, helping another student and giving food and money to people living without a home.

Some comments:

  • I learned that being compassionate is not feeling, but it is doing.
    Pleasant Glade Elementary
  • The performance touched my heart and helped me get to know the people in my class better.
    Chambers Prairie Elementary School Student
  • I felt grateful to be a part of the unique, compassionate idea. I also found it liberating to see those who are often thought of as “dis”abled utilize abilities that most people don’t have. It really informed my understanding of what differently-abled is.
    Meadows Elementary Teacher

CAP has been a success for all of us. The Thunders are role models for students and are held in high regard. The Heartsparkle Players continue to learn the nuances of support, compassion and collaboration in performances with the Thunders.

What is the key to our longevity? There is not just one key – there are many. First, we maintain a loving and supportive company – we share leadership, we support each other through life’s inevitable losses and changes, we hold regular rehearsals but allow flexibility in attendance when necessary. We search for new and challenging projects. We are deeply rooted, supported and respected by our community.  We improve our skills. Each year we renew our commitment to one another and to Playback.

What is the key to my longevity as the founder and artistic and managing director?  I am a storyteller and a scripted actor. I love both means of artistic expression but Playback has my heart. I continue to meet people with stories that change me, make me a better person, inspire and call me to make this world a better place. It is the language of my soul, it is my spiritual home.