"Humans are the most compassionate organisms to walk the earth" says James Bethea, a member of the HEART Artist Guild & Theatre Company, who narrates this year's Piccolo production, HEART Radio Lab: Love Frequency. Joey Iller, an explorer donning an astronaut mask, takes center stage. He's one man representing a universal theme, humankind's search for love. He holds a flag, a deep red heart painted on its center. Bethea asks, "What if exploration and curiosity were celebrated?"
Now in its fourth year, HEART has created a niche program for Charleston's adults with special needs, one that emphasizes arts education and community collaboration. Partnering with local organizations like Redux Contemporary Art Studio, the group of 18 adults, plus a number of dedicated volunteers spend their Tuesdays and Thursdays creating visual art projects, rehearsing skits, singing, and hiking through nature trails.
"When we started we were holistic education and art recreation therapy — that's what HEART stood for," says Farrah Hoffmire, the organization's founding director. In 2016, though, Hoffmire found out that a law exists that requires special needs organizations to be licensed by the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs. When Hoffmire realized the requirements were too much of a financial burden for the tiny nonprofit, she asked the Department of Disabilities for an exemption. They said sure — if you provide services we don't provide. Thus, a re-energized HEART was born, reinvented as Hoffmire says "for the greater good." "We're doing art, nature, theater. They gave us a letter of approval so we're a niche service."
This niche service — offering a place for special needs adults to tap into their creative sides, to find their voices, to make friends — is an incredible one to witness. As I sit in HEART's studio, tucked behind a church on Rutledge Avenue, I watch the organization's members come to life on stage, rehearsing HEART Radio Lab: Love Frequency the week before the show opens. HEART members' art lines the walls; delicate cloth banners outline the eight chakras in the body. It's a beautiful space.
"Love cannot be replicated or artificially produced. It lives and breathes." Bethea narrates from behind a desk, donning a black top hat. Our explorer, Iller, twirls through the atmosphere, searching, searching for organic, human love. The choir breaks into song, the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize??," "Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face / Do you realize we're floating in space / Do you realize that happiness makes you cry / Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die."
When the HEARTists perform at the Charleston Music Hall on Fri. June 8, they'll be joined by local vocalists — including Leah Suarez, Lindsay Holler, Noodle McDoodle, Coleman Ott, and more — backing them up. A band, comprised of Jack Burg, Ian Sanchez, Mitchell Davis, and Sam Sffiri, join too. The music is catchy, carrying the show along with each heartfelt note. There's one solo — I don't want to ruin the surprise of it — from Christian McInnis that will leave you feeling raw, vulnerable. You begin to wonder if these actors and actresses are on to something with this whole searching for love thing.
Nathan Willoughby, who performs as both a dancer and an artist, actively painting on an easel throuhout the show, tells me that he has a lot of fun performing. He posits that his character, though technically nameless, could be called, "the painter artist dancer," offered with a flourish of the hand and a cheeky grin. Watching Willoughby during rehearsal, I can't help but feel his contagious confidence; as he twirls around the stage, deftly spinning his partner, HEART volunteer Quenby Keisler, his stage presence is electric. He is the painter, artist, dancer.
Every Tuesday and Thursday between 9 and 10 a.m., parents, like Shirley Livingston, drop their children off at HEART. Livingston's son, Austin, is nonverbal, and he takes his time getting into the building, then skirts behind us, heading into the hallway. "Hi Austin, bye Austin," his mom laughs. "My top thing [about HEART] is, these are his friends, these are the only friends he has other than his family members. It's amazing, the volunteers are dealing with them from the heart — it gives them the confidence and the self-respect, and they don't get that at a lot of places."
I watch Austin throughout the rehearsal — he plays a robot, in charge of turning the lightbulbs in a giant heart. He stands still, smiling slightly, not making eye contact with anyone. The show closes with a rousing performance from William Simmons, who raps Macklemore's "glorious." (After the show Simmons tells me that he loves hip-hop, and suggests I listen to Hurricane Chris). Austin moves away from the lightbulb heart, and ever so slowly, starts to sway back and forth. There's not a single HEART member not dancing. The volunteers grab their hands, they all twirl, and spin, and bounce to the beat.
There's a surprise at the end of the show that you'll have to see to enjoy in its entirety. I can tell you this, though — the script is spot on. Bethea reads the words we're all thinking. And even when he laments the rise of "the algorithm" and the trumping of human connections in favor of cold, heartless technology, he reminds us of something really important: "When you give love, it attracts more than you could ever imagine."