Last June, Hartford's HartBeat Ensemble faced a devastating loss. Gregory R. Tate, one of the three founding artistic directors, died at the age of 60 from lung cancer.
But the small, community-centric company is resilient and after grieving it regrouped and is facing its 12th anniversary year with a new focus, home and a provocative premiere that taps into the theater's commitment to original and socially relevant work.
For most of the past decade the ensemble existed nomadically, landing on whatever performance and administrative space it could find — most recently at the Hollander Building on Asylum Avenue as its stage and City Arts on Pearl (the
But thanks to funding from individuals, foundations and government, in February it signed a multi-year lease for its new home: The Carriage House Theater, an 80-seat venue that was the former home of Hartford Children's Theatre.
Founding artistic directors Julia B. Rosenblatt and Steven Raider-Ginsburg — who along with Tate, worked together at the San Francisco Mime Troupe before relocating here — called it "a perfect opportunity to increase HartBeat's visibility and impact in Hartford."
"The organization has changed and we're still figuring that out what the change means to us," says Raider-Ginsburg during a break in rehearsals. "From thebeginning we've wanted to institutionalize ourselves and grow."
Still, it's a modest operation compared to the more-established and prolifically-producing theaters in town:
With the staff located on the third floor of a smallbuilding next to the theater, HartBeat readies for its first premiere in its new home: "Riding the Turnpike: Myth, Secrecy and Sex Along the Berlin Turnpike," which begins previews Wednesday, April 24, opens Friday, April 26, and continues through May 18.
The show's subject matter should get attention. It centers on the sex industry on the Berlin Turnpike, home of big box stores, fast food franchises and 1,200 motel rooms, many that rent by the hour.
The work, set in a strip club, follows four women involved in prostitution in different ways and for different reasons "and explores the variations and definitions of trafficked youth and women, survival sex workers and voluntary sex workers. The lines between who is trafficked, who is there of their own free will and who is there for survival, are blurred as we watch the women navigate their own desperate situation," writes Hartbeat, describing the show.
Cindy Martinez is the lead playwright and plays the role of Helen. Debra Walsh is co-writer of the work which was inspired by the book "The Berlin Turnpike: A True Story of Human trafficking in America" by Raymond Bechard.
Raider-Ginsburg directs the cast also which also includes Bryan Swormstedt, Caitlin McInerney, Herbert Newsome, Michelle Mount and Taneisha Duggan.
Martinez says media attention over the past few years has cast a spotlight on international sex trafficking. With the help of Bechard's contacts, company members interviewed sex workers and developed the play over the past two years, including several staged readings/
The company's last production, the well-received "Flipside," had a similar developmental process. That show, directed by Tate, also played last year at New York's International
When Tate died, the organization took a personal hit. Last fall, the group completed a strategic plan with an outside theater consultant that said i the group needed an artistic home, expanded programming and should build on its brand nationally. The company received support from the state Department of Economic Community Development, the state Office of the Arts and the Travelers Foundation to explore a self-sustaining performing arts facility in Hartford.
When the Hartford Children's Theatre folded in January, the Immanuel Congregational Church, which owns the small theater on its property, reached out to HartBeat to see if it was interested in the space. HartBeat signed a 20-month lease which would take it to the fall of 2014.It has an option to extend its lease. The theater's 2013-14 season kicks off in August.
"We're standing on our own now," says Martinez, an ensemble member who is also community liaison. "I feel now that not only have we grown up but are now a force to be reckoned with. People are taking notice on a daily basis and asking us how they can get involved."
Raider-Ginsburg, whom American Theatre Magazine named as one of 25 young theater artists who are most likely to influence American Theater in the next 25 years," says HartBeat's works "are very contemporary, dynamic and speaks to a new, young adult population of people in their 20s and 30s."
He took a sabbatical from HartBeat to earn his MFA in directing from Boston University, and says nearly half of HartBeat's audience is between 25 and 36, and more than half are people of color.
Also on tap for the theater are two new play reading series. On the first Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. will be "First Reads" which will showcase new works. First up on May 7 at is Enrique Uruete's "Forever Never Comes."
The second reading series is "Truth & Power: A to Z," which will present established plays of" significant social impact." This reading series will be presented on the third Tuesday of every month and will kick off on May 21 with Elmer Rice's "The Adding Machine."
The organization is also offering the Carriage Theater for local groups for rehearsals and performances at a subsidized rate. It is also pursuing co-productions with other similar theater groups around the country.
RIDING THE TURNPIKE begins previews Wednesday, April 24, and opens Friday, April 26, at the Carriage House Theater, 360