On the cold Friday evening of December 13, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend an unusual, interesting and highly entertaining live theater event in Hartford, Connecticut’s west end.
The event I’m referring to was a theatrical play titled “West End: Hartford” that was put on by the acclaimed Hartford-based theatrical troupe known as the Hartbeat Ensemble.
This community-minded, forward-thinking theater ensemble strives to bring theater to the community at large through onstage plays, educational programs and outdoor live theater productions.
When I arrived at the Hartbeat Ensemble’s new home at The Carriage House Theater at 360 Farmington Avenue in Hartford, I was impressed by the cleanliness of the theater space and the sense of professionalism the members of the ensemble displayed with greeting patrons, selling tickets and tending bar.
The Carriage House is the former home of a youth theater group and is situated across the street from the world-famous Mark Twain House and Museum.
After talking for a few minutes with Julia Rosenblatt and Steven Ginsburg, the co-artistic directors of Hartbeat Ensemble, I purchased a bottle of water from the little bar that was set up in the lobby and made my way into the fairly small but amply comfortable theater.
The play that was being presented by the Hartbeat Ensemble, “West End: Hartford” featured a script that was completely formed from interviews the ensemble members had conducted with residents of Hartford’s west end earlier in the year.
Prior to the start of the play, each member of the audience was given a small stack of self-sticking papers and a pencil with which to keep notes and write their observations regarding the play being presented. At the conclusion of “West End: Hartford”, the audience and the members of Hartbeat Ensemble were to engage in a dialogue concerning the play.
The play opened with an actor walking on stage, then starting to talk about different geographical locations in the west end of Hartford. On a screen behind the actor, a video that showed scenes of the west end, including shots of both the north side and south side of Farmington Avenue was shown.
After the lone actor expressed thoughts about the North of/South of Farmington Avenue mentality, another actor walked onstage, then a few more seconds of video showing west end businesses and institutions aired.
While the bits of dialogue and video were being presented, other actors were walking onstage. There were two African-American actors and actresses, one Hispanic actress and one Caucasian man and one Caucasian woman who portrayed a married, well-to-do couple. The married couple represented the “north of Farmington Avenue” demographic, where many of the homes are large and the occupants are generally wealthier than their “south of Farmington Avenue” counterparts.
A dialogue and video snippets about institutions and businesses in Hartford’s west end began and different viewpoints were expressed by the various actors and actresses. Because these characters were based upon real people through interviews that were conducted, the different points of view pretty accurately represented the disparity of the residents of Hartford’s west end.
The United Methodist Church that stands at the corner of Farmington Avenue and South Whitney Street was discussed onstage, with the actors and actresses mentioning the farmers’ market, the food pantry and free clothing that the church helps to provide for the community.
An extended dialogue concerning magnet schools, Hartford schools in general and social attitudes from black and white perspectives was presented.
There was more dialogue about cleaning Hartford’s streets of litter, community gardens and the condition of the city’s sidewalks. This was followed by a few more seconds of film, then more dialogue about a lack of community meeting spaces, the West End Civic Association and the former community center that was in the west end.
Next came a few seconds of video about crime issues in the west end followed by dialogue about local crime issues including break-ins in the west end. A tongue-in-cheek bit of dialogue from the “north of Farmington Avenue” married woman actress concerning crime in the west end was then humorously yet accurately presented.
The issue of housing in Hartford’s west end was tackled next, with a few seconds of video followed by dialogue including a riveting statement from the young hispanic actress concerning the issue of bedbugs.
Some dialogue about the “north of Farmington Avenue / south of Farmington Avenue” syndrome was then presented and followed by a few more seconds of video, then dialogue concerning annual events that take place in Hartford’s west end including the DineAround the West End event and the Farmington Avenue block party.
At that point, all five actors stood up onstage and declared in unison how they love the west end of Hartford. That was the end of Act One of “West End: Hartford”.
After the audience applauded and showed their appreciation for the great job done by the actors, the curtains onstage opened, revealing several categorized columns that represented topics that were covered in the play. These columns were intended to be where audience members could post their comments about the play on the self-sticking pieces of notepad paper that were handed out prior to the start of the play.
As part of the audience participation aspect of “West End: Hartford”, audience members posted their comments about the play and the categories that received the most comments were discussed by the audience and the members of the Hartbeat Ensemble.
As it turned out, the topics that received the most comments were public safety and (lack of) community meeting places.
At the end of the open discussion period, Julia Rosenblatt came forward and outlined future goals of the theater, including expanding the type of format that was presented in “West End : Hartford”.
While she was onstage, Ms. Rosenblatt fielded questions and comments from the audience members and mentioned the youth education theatrical programs that are presented by the Hartbeat Ensemble. All things considered, “West End: Hartford” was a thought-provoking and enjoyable production that was presented professionally and insightfully.
Now I can’t wait to see another Hartbeat Ensemble production.
Personal experience with attending a Hartbeat Ensemble production