Heather Harpham took a four-year hiatus from the stage to care for her daughter, who was born with a severe form of anemia that left her dependent on blood transfusions to survive. When she eventually returned to performance after her daughter's recovery (she's 11 now), Harpham tried to create a generalized piece about the body.
It didn't work.
"I just didn't feel that my heart was in it," Harpham says. Instead, she gave herself permission to work with her experiences of being with her daughter inside a medical world, to see what emerged.
Using her own body for inspiration and imagination is central to Harpham's theatrical approach, and is one of the reasons Jim Jackson, co-founder and executive director of the Millibo Art Theatre, was interested in bringing her final product, Happiness, to the MAT. "When we saw Heather's piece," he says, "we loved the combination of dance and story."
The New York City-based 45-year-old, who also teaches at Manhattanville College, employs a method called "action theatre" when creating her work. "The text is generated in the moment by going into character or by going into a particular expressive mode and then improvising," Harpham says. So while the shows aren't necessarily improvised, the process of creating them is.
Happiness is personal but also addresses the universal experiences of loss and grief. With this in mind, she explains, "I prefer for the figure of the daughter in the play to be unnamed in order to be more easily accepted as a symbolic character."
Harpham has been performing Happiness for about four years, at venues as far away as Nepal. The piece was selected for the One Woman Standing Festival and the All for One Theatre Festival in New York City, the latter of which describes her show this way: "Happiness considers the body as social object, medical subject, commercial commodity, and spiritual artifact."