Meet the woman leading Kaiser Permanente’s groundbreaking theater program

Betty Hart is using her background as an actress and artist to lead hard conversations about health and race.

Meet the woman leading Kaiser Permanente’s groundbreaking theater program
Betty Hart [Photo: Rachel Ellis]

Betty Hart is a senior community health specialist for Kaiser Permanente, a professional director, and a member of Actor’s Equity. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.


Doreen Lorenzo: When did you realize you had an interest in the arts?

Betty Hart: When I was a kid, I decided that I would be an actor, a doctor, or a politician. But my mom says she knew I was going to become an actor because apparently one night I woke up at midnight, got out of bed, came into the living room where my parents were playing cards with friends, sang a song into my hairbrush, took a bow, and then went back to bed. From then on she was really intentional about fostering my creativity. I got to take theater classes at the Coconut Grove children’s theater in Miami, Florida, and went on to college and majored in theater and English. I knew from pretty early on that I wanted to be a part of the arts.

Betty Hart [Photo: Eric Weber]
DL: How did you make the transition from theater into health?

BH: I started off as an actor for the Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre Programs in Atlanta, Georgia, but my friend knew that I also had directing experience, so he asked me to direct a one-act play. We had a really powerful play that was dealing with the HIV/STD crisis in the country and they wanted to do it for high school students, but also wanted to take it into Black churches because African Americans were [getting infected] at a higher rate. Sound familiar?

They wanted to have a talkback afterward, but nobody had a plan for the postshow conversation. In the midst of all of this, I began to see that there could be an order and a design to the talkback process. There was a better way of helping people retain the information and disseminate it. I didn’t realize that was design or even the beginning of facilitation. It was just solving a problem. But isn’t that what design is all about anyway? I ended up crafting the process and it worked. Both high school students and adults were getting enlightened about HIV and STDs. It didn’t matter the age group. That was the beginning. That was the first project where I worked as a facilitator. Even though I didn’t get formally trained as a facilitator, I began to realize there was an entire industry around facilitation and that design is at the heart of good facilitation.


DL: What is Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre Program?

BH: Kaiser Permanente has had the program for more than 35 years. It began with teaching young people about healthy eating and active living. But it has indeed grown. Now there are Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatres in all the different regions where Kaiser Permanente is located. And there are teams like ours in Colorado called Arts Integrated Resources. We use theater as a tool to reach the community and talk about health. We don’t believe in telling people what to do with their health. It’s about presenting information so they can make healthy choices physically, socially, and emotionally. This work was so captivating that I moved to Colorado to continue doing it.

DL: Are plays being written specific to communities? What are you presenting to them?

BH: Nationally, different plays have been written by established playwrights as well as playwrights who are part of the Kaiser Permanente staff. For example, in Georgia, Bett Potazek, the artistic director for Kaiser Permanente ETPGA, wrote a play called Give Peas a Chance, which was an amazing interactive puppet show that teaches healthy eating and active living to help address the obesity problem in our country. We toured it all over the metro Atlanta area.

Here in Colorado, Curtis Robbins and Jada Dixon wrote a short play called Loose Change, which tells the story of three patients waiting in line to see a doctor and one frontline worker who checks them in. You see these individuals, and based on the way they’re dressed you think you know them. One is a blue-collar worker, one appears to be a homeless person, a local who shops at Nordstrom, and an overworked frontline employee. But after you hear their stories delivered in monologue, you discover that they’re your brother, your aunt, your neighbor. They aren’t the stereotypes. Theater is an incredible tool to be able to move information from the head to the heart.


That piece is the jump-off point for the project that I’m most proud of called the Care Equity Project. It’s a workshop that takes people on a journey to recognize how poverty and bias affect health outcomes, and the necessity for empathy in healthcare. The Care Equity Project started off specifically geared toward people who work in healthcare, but it’s become so much more. Here in Colorado, the Aurora Water Company brought us in because they saw the links between poverty and the under-resourced, so it really is for anyone who’s working in the public sector. We’ve even created an entire module on hospitality, which can work for any industry. It’s this idea of moving from a service mindset of the technical delivery of a product to a hospitality mindset of how that product affects the person that it’s for.

DL: How do you engage with people and get them to speak up?

BH: Everything I do at Kaiser Permanente Arts Integrated Resources is in the lens of experiential learning. It’s not just telling, it’s doing. I use the technique of mining the wisdom in the room, because I believe no matter how much any of us know, there’s always more wisdom to be gained. We want all the people in the room to share. In every single workshop, I’m learning from them while they’re learning from me, which creates a really electric environment.

Betty Hart, in yellow, in a rehearsal reading for the Local Theater Company’s Local Lab play festival. [Photo: Graeme Schulz]
I come in from a place of neutrality and with the positive presumption that every person has something to say. Many speakers come in with a mindset of “You all need to believe me because I’m the expert.” My team and I come in with the idea that we’re not experts. We may have done a little more research in some areas, but we also presume that there are people in the room who know more than we do. I’m not a doctor or a nurse. I don’t know all the things that they know, so I come into every room with respect for the audience, a respect for who they are and what their life experiences have taught them. All of those things combined create an atmosphere of safety, vulnerability, and authenticity. If you come in with a positive mindset toward people, they can see it and feel it. If we believe the best in our audiences, they tend to rise to that expectation.

Even as an artist, I am on a perpetual quest to understand more of the world that we live in. I create atmospheres to learn more so I can understand more. My hope is that at the same time I’m doing that, the same is happening for others, and we’re all having shared epiphanies. We may only hear a fraction of them, because the purpose behind great design is what people will take away from it when they’re not with us. In the same way that if I’m acting on stage and I’m really true to a moment that resonates with an audience member, it’s after the show as they’re driving away that some of the words said by my character begin to align with their thought processes. The bulk of the work that I do isn’t going to happen in the room. The beginning of it, the seeds of it do, but the rest of it happens after we’re no longer together.


DL: With people social distancing due to the pandemic, are you trying different things virtually that you might not have tried in the physical space?

BH: I definitely am. I recently had a Zoom conversation with a group of seniors in an affluent suburb of Colorado about race. I wouldn’t have thought of doing that before. I love facilitating hard conversations. That is definitely part of my wheelhouse. However, I hadn’t made a commitment to doing more of that during this time of racial upheaval, probably because of the deep pain of the situation and my faith that others were handling it. Yet this group had been pursuing me to talk about race and social justice after they saw a play I directed. Originally it just didn’t work out time-wise, but in the middle of a pandemic don’t we all have a bit more time?

Turns out it was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had, and that includes having the Care Equity Project take place on a college campus the day after the 2016 election. I was hearing well-meaning, big-hearted white people say a number of things that aren’t great. One was having them say, “Really? I find it so hard to believe that that happened in Denver and Boulder,” after hearing about the discrimination I had experienced in Colorado. That conversation is happening all over the country with people saying “Really? There’s racism in the United States?” But it was so earnest that it shifted something in me from that place of neutrality to “No, I really need you to understand.”

I was willing to go to another level to make sure that at the end of the conversation, they had a clearer picture of why our country is in this place. Within a little over two hours I was able to have that conversation with perfect strangers and we all left feeling more like kin. It was a powerful epiphany of what we can do even in the virtual media, using the virtual world as a way to bring people together.

The cast of season two of the Arvada Center’s Amplify video series [Photo: John Moore/The Arvada Center]

When we talk about community conversations, there are lots of different ways to do that. The Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, the second-largest arts organization in Colorado, came to me and asked if I would help them use their platform to amplify Black voices. I took on the project and produced the Amplify series, which features African American men and women who were told that they could express themselves in any way they chose. It could be monologues, music, dance, or anything. They had complete autonomy and it’s really powerful because you get to hear both their fears and their joys. I curated, produced, and designed the different episodes and it’s been wonderful to see the Arvada Center audiences who are primarily white and older embrace learning about the lives and the hearts of these Black individuals.


DL: What do you tell young designers? What’s the advice you want to give them?

BH: Learn from what others have done and trust that you may have something that hasn’t been done before. That combination allows each person to create their own design path that will be positive for them because they have ownership of it. Just because everyone has done something one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. I discovered on my own that my facilitation style is very different from others, but it uses some of the great research that we get from design, and it allows for my own creativity and flexibility. For people coming up in design, I would say recognize that you can also contribute.

About the author

Doreen Lorenzo is Assistant Dean at the School of Design and Creative Technologies, and Founding Director of the Center for Integrated Design, both at The University of Texas at Austin.