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Grass Roots Theater

Hartbeat bring its wild, gritty political plays to Hartford parks

Christopher Arnott

July 15, 2009

Plays in the Parks

July 18 in Pope Park, July 19 in Goodwin Park and July 25 in Keney Park (all in Hartford). 5 p.m., preceded by family activities at 4:30 p.m. (860) 548-9144, hartbeatensemble.org.

When asked how the Plays in the Parks series has changed over its first four years, Hartbeat Ensemble member Steve Ginsburg laughs, "It's just gotten better."

All the same, when deciding on an overarching theme for its politically charged, community-building playlets, the troupe had to look no further than their own pockets. "We worried about being able to do a play with 18 people in it. That's how the economy hit home for us." Hence the theme, "The economy hits home," which Hartbeat pumps through a variety of performance styles for a full evening of free outdoor theater with a community-conscious twist. So much summer theater is escapist and fantasy-filled that it's remarkable to find a strain of it that actually makes you remember where you are.

One of the Hartbeat pieces is a 1930s detective story in which an intrepid gumshoe can't figure out why Hartford is giving tax abatements to companies (Hartford Insurance Group, that is Hartbeat's not afraid to name names) which are already getting bail-out funds, while worthwhile small businesses are going under. Another of the plays is "more naturalistic," says Ginsberg, who directed all of them "about the underground drug economy, with hip-hop beats and transitions." A third is a corny melodrama, replete with signs which encourage the audience to boo, hiss and applaud. Four of these "fun, fast-paced, highly physical plays" have been prepared, of which three are done at each of the park shows. The 2009 Plays in the Park began last weekend with performances in Hartford's Elizabeth Park, continue Saturday in Pope Park, Sunday in Goodwin Park and July 25 in Keney Park.

Plays in the Park's ripped-from-the-headlines streetsmart, wild and unhinged entertainments "family friendly," Ginsburg notes, "but like 'The Simpsons,' with things the parents will get that the kids won't" are virtually unique in Connecticut, yet grew out of a long tradition of in-your-face exploits established by the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has been bringing similar provocations to parks, rock clubs and other common meeting places for 50 years.

Some of the founding Hartbeat members are veterans of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and when they first settled in Hartford eight years ago they were careful to establish their troupe as its own thing, not in the thrall of any other.

Having done that, earning immediate community support and grants to produce their hyperlocal performances, Hartbeat finally felt comfortable "going back to our roots," Ginsberg says.

At the same time, Hartbeat's multi-story, thematically linked shows differ from the traditionally longform SFMT shows. And this year Hartbeat's added a new wrinkle, inviting Hartford-area performance artist and self-described "soapbox poet" Mira to emcee the shows.

Hartbeat's strongest partnership, however, is with the city in which it lives. The troupe's activist community-fostering principles go beyond their prepared bouts of amusing and enlightening truth-telling. At their park performances, they allow local councilpersons, friends of the parks, and other civic leaders to publicly introduce themselves as part of the presentation, leading to networking, friendship, and stronger local communities. "That's our focus," Ginsburg says. "Community-building in the neighborhood."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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