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Julia B. Rosenblatt: Big On Hartford

Actress Helped Start A Theater Troupe Here Because She Believes In Her Hometown

By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ, Courant Staff Writer

December 20, 2007

She still hears it, more than six years after a very deliberate return to her native Hartford to help launch a theater troupe dedicated to inspiring social and political change.

Indeed, Julia B. Rosenblatt just heard it the other day. And it went something like.....

When you make it really big, when you get to New York or L.A.

"And that just blows us away," says Rosenblatt, 33, co-founder of HartBeat Ensemble, the gutsy, often experimental theater company whose works are inspired by the everyday stories of the city.

"This isn't a pit stop, and it's not a default. We've done [New York and L.A.], and we chose Hartford."

If the activist ensemble's mission on paper is to provoke social change, its unspoken one might be to dust off a gloomy city psyche that assumes most of its good people, and good things, are just passing through.

"That [sort of thinking] is so insane," says Rosenblatt, curled against a wooden pew in the Charter Oak Cultural Center. On a recent weeknight, the cast and crew scuttles about in preparation for a final run-through of their current production, "Ebeneeza" a Hartford take on the Dickens holiday classic.

"Because if we could just get past that sort of inferiority complex ... then we could see that really exciting work is being done right here in Hartford, in all forms. Not just art.

"...For us, this is where it's happening," Rosenblatt says, smacking the pew for emphasis.

And then, dress rehearsal calls.

So while she gets into costume to tell one of those Hartford stories, we'll give you the synopsis of another:

Rosenblatt met her HartBeat co-founders, Gregory R. Tate and Steven Ginsburg, while the three studied at the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a group famed for blending theater with the sort of social activism Rosenblatt inherited from her politically active parents.

After four years with the troupe, the trio felt ready to form their own socially conscious theater company. San Francisco was already well stocked. Rosenblatt, however, knew of a city that could really use one.

The arrived in Hartford in September 2001, estimating they'd need about a year to settle in. A week later came the terror attacks. The actors responded the best way they knew, taking to the steps of the Capitol within weeks to perform their brand of free open-air theater.

It was a premature birth of sorts. But Hartford, here they were.

In the years since, HartBeat has expanded steadily. With a paper-strewn office in the downtown ArtSpace building, and with their performances held at Charter Oak until they find a permanent home, they've mounted three original full-length productions. Their program now includes a "plays in the park" series and education workshops that use theater to teach conflict resolution to adults and children.

The thread that binds all their works is woven from the struggles and characters of the city. From issues of education, poverty and homelessness, they mine the very community they perform for, digging through historical archives and interviewing dozens of the city's residents for inspiration.

"It's a give and take," says Rosenblatt. "We consider ourselves a theater of identity. Identity is power. ... And for people to see a reflection of themselves in the paper or on screen or on stage, that's validating."

For "Ebeneeza," a tale of redemption that reinvents Ebenezer Scrooge as a crotchety woman who made her fortune in Hartford real estate, Rosenblatt estimates the group conducted about 20 personal interviews. They talked to folks who grew up on Franklin Avenue, people who lived through the civil upheavals of the 1960s in the North End and who recall the promise of urban development (the first time around) along Front Street. What results is a look back at the social and economic cycles of one of the country's poorest cities, tucked in the center of one of its wealthiest states.

But mounting these productions in this manner, on a tight budget, in a city that expects that you, too, will leave is no easy feat. And with funding cobbled together from ticket sales, grants and donations, the trio at HartBeat is certainly not in it for the paycheck.

What keeps them motivated?

"There's nothing more rewarding for us," says Rosenblatt, also the mother of 2 1/2 year-old curly mopped Tessa. "It's pretty magical."

The rewards come, too, in quiet ways. During a post-show talk back on their recent preview night, only a few hands went up. The audience members said the show made them consider the complexities of the city's economic cycle, the impact of poverty on education and how it'll hold the city back as long as they allow it to.

"The more things change, the more things stay the same," said one woman. And then, to HartBeat she had just this:

"I just want to say thanks."

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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