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Work And Plays

Troupe For Social Change Offers Insights On Stage Into Those Who Toil In City

August 25, 2006
By JANICE PODSADA, Courant Staff Writer

Under a bank of clip-lights strung over a ceiling pipe, Alicia Mullings turns on her heel and paces, repeating the lines she must memorize. She fidgets with the placement of her props - a washcloth and a hairbrush - practicing her stage moves.

Mullings, 27, is keenly aware of her role - making theater out of the lives of ordinary workers - in this case a nursing assistant named Doris.

The short play she is rehearsing explores Doris' compassion for one of her patients, a feisty nursing home resident she nicknames "Miss Sassy." Doris is saddened when she goes on strike, leaving Miss Sassy behind. But she has a family to support.

"What we hope is that people who don't know much about unions will see a loving, compassionate Doris," said Steve Bender, executive director of the training fund for the New England Health Care Employees Union, Local 1199.

"When they see someone like Doris going on strike because she needs to get paid better - that says a lot."

Mullings, a paralegal at a Bridgeport law firm, is a member of HartBeat Ensemble, a Hartford theater group that is bringing sympathetic portrayals of striking workers, beleaguered security guards and unemployed machinists to local audiences.

The theater troupe, which is committed to social change, was founded in 2001 by Julia Rosenblatt, 31, Steven Ginsburg, 31, and Gregory Tate, 54. Since then, the trio has written and produced plays that focus on the lives of Hartford's working people.

Without a stage, without actors to illuminate their daily lives, Hartford's factory workers, janitors and information technology workers might remain unknown and misunderstood, Rosenblatt said. They toil inside nursing homes, high-rises, or at night, after the city's workers have gone home.

Most of the people who work downtown don't live in the city, Rosenblatt said.

HartBeat Ensemble will bring the stories of workers like Doris to Hartford's Elizabeth Park on Saturday. The free performance features three short plays based on interviews with Hartford security guards, information technology workers and on an essay by Doris Taylor, a certified nursing assistant and member of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199.

Saturday's performance concludes the troupe's first season of its Plays in the Parks series, bringing free outdoor theater to the city's parks.

They are giving people a peek at the reality of workers' lives, from nursing assistants to janitors, Bender said. "They are very interested in issues of social justice and in portraying the lives of working people."

But they are not a humorless bunch. In fact, the troupe seems to delight in spoofing itself. In a play about security guards, an overly exuberant member of a theater company called the Thumping Hart Ensemble attempts to interview a reticent guard.

"We're just trying to give voice to those who are never heard," pleads the interviewer, played by Cindy Martinez.

"And get us fired," deadpans the security guard, played by David Greer.

Ten years ago, HartBeat's three founders met as members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, billed as the nation's oldest political theater group. In 2000, they formed their own troupe, and a year later settled in Hartford, where Rosenblatt grew up.

Rosenblatt, the daughter of politically active parents, persuaded Ginsburg and Tate that her hometown was suffering from an economic disconnect. Hartford, capital of the one of the wealthiest states in the nation, is also one of the country's poorest cities.

"Hartford is ripe for political theater because of its economic contradiction," Rosenblatt said. "We want to be socially relevant theater, Hartford's theater for active change."

In college, Ginsburg wanted to be a politician, but after attending a program that allowed him to meet with dozens of politicians, he found himself disillusioned. They were less for change than keeping the status quo, he said. So he turned to acting and writing plays.

"Art is a way for people to communicate - to get to ideas, compassion and truth. Our mission is to bring as much geographic, class and cultural diversity together to have a conversation," Ginsburg said.

Since its debut, the nonprofit theater troupe has collected applause as well as funding from the local affiliates of several national labor unions.

In 2003, HartBeat invited members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 919 to attend a production of "Graves," the first play the trio wrote and produced.

The UFCW is trying to unionize Wal-Mart workers and other retail employees, said Mark Espinosa, president of Local 919, based in Farmington. The main character in "Graves" is a machinist whose factory closes when jobs go overseas. He finds work at a store called "All-Mart," but discovers that the wages and benefits it offers aren't enough to support his family.

Union members found the play meaningful and well-produced, Espinosa said. As a result, the troupe received a grant from the UFCW's New England Defense Fund, funded by its five UFCW New England locals.

The hope was that their play would spread the message about the need to unionize retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, so their employees can support their families, Espinosa said.

The 2003 grant allowed the ensemble to take its show on the road, touring Connecticut, Rhode Island and California. That summer, HartBeat staged "Graves" at the union hall of the Machinists Union in East Hartford and at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Ginsburg said.

Last year, the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199, commissioned the ensemble to transform essays of more than 36 certified nurse's assistants into a series of short plays. The essays were the product of three, 12-week creative writing classes sponsored by the Association of Joint Labor/Management Educational Programs. The New-York based nonprofit membership organization pays for educational programs for 20 organizations, including 14 unions. The three-year nationwide writing project is intended to encourage union members, from workers at Boeing to the steel industry, to tell their stories, said Marshall Goldberg, the group's executive director.

The Nathan Cummings Foundation is helping to fund the project. The New York based nonprofit foundation, started by the founder of Sara Lee Foods, is rooted in the Jewish tradition of promoting fairness, diversity and social justice through different venues, including arts and cultural programs.

HartBeat's founders are able to support their full-time enterprise through donations, commissions, grants and classes on acting and writing plays that they offer through the Greater Hartford YMCA and other community groups.

Ignoring the two cats milling around the makeshift stage inside Tate's apartment, Mullings delivered a passionate soliloquy about the retired salesclerk she calls Miss Sassy: "Her mouth is as sharp as a razorblade, even though she doesn't have a tooth in her mouth. ... It takes humor, patience and a kind heart to cope with Miss Sassy."

Mullings, the troupe's only non-professional actor, won applause from her companions. She was ready for Saturday's performance.

Rosenblatt and her two co-founders hope Hartbeat will help introduce to Greater Hartford the extraordinary lives of ordinary workers.

"It's an adult version of Mr. Rogers, `Meet the people in your neighborhood,'" Ginsburg said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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