Alumni Spotlight: Joan Lipkin

Photo of Joan Lipkin holding wires for a microphone behind the curtains on a stage.

Photo: Kevin A. Roberts of St. Louis Magazine

Internationally recognized theatre artist, social activist, and Webster University alumna Joan Lipkin ‘75 was honored as a Woman in the Arts on July 15, by Until You Have Walked a Mile in Her Shoes, Inc. This award comes on the heels of her being named a “Local Legend” in St. Louis Magazine’s 2023 A-List Editors' Choice Awards for the Arts, Culture & Entertainment section, and being recognized with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” in April by The St. Louis Theatre Circle

These are just the latest honors for Lipkin, who has been acknowledged for her work as a change-maker in the St. Louis region and beyond. 
Lipkin’s expansive portfolio spans globally. She founded and has served as producing artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company since 1989, presenting or creating original performances that focus on underrepresented populations and the pressing issues of our times. Over the years, Lipkin has devised or produced work with inclusive messages about diversity, racial justice, reproductive choice, LGBTQ+ rights, disability and accessibility, immigration and gun sense, always through a racial equity and gender justice lens. The company regularly travels to schools, community events and cultural institutions throughout the region to perform. 
As an actor, writer, director, and producer, Lipkin’s work has appeared on network television, BBC, and NPR, among many other outlets. She regularly creates work with diverse populations, including the LGBTQ+ community and their families, seniors, adults with Alzheimer’s and early stage dementia, college students, women with cancer, people with disabilities, survivors of suicide, women who have been sexually trafficked, people in recovery and communities of faith, among others. She is an expert on rapid response theatre and has contributed to or produced several national projects including Every 28 Hours, After Orlando and Climate Change Theatre Action. She has worked as an artist around the U.S. and in Europe. 
The company has earned numerous honors including the IDEA award from Mindseye, John Van Voris Award for Community Service, two What’s Right with the Region Awards, one for Fostering Creativity for Social Change and one for Improving Racial Equality and Social Justice from Focus St. Louis, the Community Enhancement Award from the Governor’s Council on Disabilities, and the Midwest Gala Human Rights Campaign Organization Equality Award. 
One of the areas for which Lipkin is best known is in disability, founding the DisAbility Project in 1995 with the late occupational therapist, Fran Cohen. Still active, the project will be featured at Festability, the largest cultural gathering of people with disabilities in Missouri, this October.  
“We (the company) create our work from scratch as an ensemble based on story circles, dialogue and improvisation; although, we also commissioned a disabled version of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’” Lipkin shared in an interview with AmeriDisability. “We have performed for over 100,000 people and our work is included in the permanent collection of the Missouri History Museum.” 
Lipkin herself has previously been recognized with awards such as the Missouri Arts Award, Bud Light Ultra Pride Award, Ethical Humanist of the Year, ATHE Leadership for Community-based Theatre and Civic Engagement, a Woman of Achievement, Woman Justice Award from Missouri Lawyers, and the Visionary Award from Grand Center, among others. This year, she is listed as one of the 50 Key Figures in Queer U.S. Theatre. 
In 2016, Lipkin expanded her commitment to social advocacy and promoting active citizenship by founding Dance the Vote (DTV). The nonpartisan arts initiative brings together local, national, and international artists to make a difference during election seasons by promoting voter awareness. Artists are encouraged to create pieces about issues that might compel them to vote. 
What began as a performance for a few dozen people on a rainy afternoon outside fellow Webster student Tom Ray’s iconic record store, Vintage Vinyl, has now reached thousands of people through the inclusion of commissioned dance videos, accompanied by information on voter registration. In 2020, the project was featured as part of "Every Vote Counts: A Celebration of Democracy" on CBS, hosted by Kerry Washington, America Ferrera and Alicia Keys. 
Today, DTV continues to promote voter advocacy and registration through performance, video, graphics, and other art forms. Most of the choreography is based on themes of the voting experience: including the experience of African Americans, women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and more. DTV will return to the Missouri History Museum for the 2024 election cycle, and are partnering with the St. Louis Public Library on a photo project called the Voters of St. Louis.  
Lipkin describes herself as a proud Webster alumna, still recalling some professors who encouraged and recognized her talents and emerging interests. 
“Reta Madsen told me I could really write. Harry Cargas encouraged deep thinking about ethical issues. And Sister Barbara Barbato was a cheerleader, encouraging me to explore my less conventional path. I also met some of my closest and long time friends there. I’m not sure who I would be if I hadn’t gone to Webster,” she said. 
Lipkin says she tries to pay it back by mentoring numerous Webster students as interns in graphic design, public relations and marketing for nonprofits.  
“It’s challenging and also meaningful to spend much of one’s life making art and working for social change, and a privilege I do not take for granted,” Lipkin said. “I’m grateful to everyone with whom I have worked or who has supported my efforts as well as other artists who inspire me.” 

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