In a storefront on High Street in downtown Hartford, one of the co-Artistic Directors of the Hartbeat Ensemble is scrubbing down the set for their upcoming presentation of “Flipside,” as the troupe’s Community Outreach Coordinator is counting out posters while getting ready to rehearse her part in the production and other actors arrive bringing in props they’ve located in their spare time.
This is a glimpse of the “flipside” of the Ensemble, a 10+ year old Hartford-based theatrical collaborative that is preparing for the opening of its next company-developed show, set to run on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from April 28 to May 21. Greg Tate, the co-Artistic Director with mop in hand, has worked intensely since January with fellow members to transform the empty storefront into a theater space to accommodate the new work. Several storefronts have been donated rent-free from January to July to the Ensemble by Common Ground, the nonprofit organization redeveloping the seven-story Hollander Building on the corner of Asylum and High Streets for use as multi-income housing.
On this particular afternoon, the framework of the set has been installed with four multilevel platforms in place and a lighting grid beginning to take shape. The walls in the space have been stripped down to their cement and block basics, which members of the collaborative decided would serve as an appropriate background for the set. Members of the cast and crew wander in, ready to spend another interactive rehearsal exploring the mutually-written script and refining the characters, dialogue and story arc of “Flipside.”
According to Tate, “Flipside’ tells the story of a chance encounter between a Hartford teenager and an undercover narcotics officer through spoken-word poetry, storytelling and rhythmic movement to portray the complexities of drug use and trafficking in the capital region’s communities. “We are looking at the costs on all sides of the issues,” he further explains, “and question who is really the victim. So much of the drug problem is considered to be an urban issues, but it impacts our suburbs as well. We’ve learned that an inordinate number of young popel in our cities end up in jail, while an inordinate number of young people from the suburbs overdose. We want to explore the hypocrisies on all sides of the problem.”
At the same time, Tate is quick to point out that “Flipside” is not a screed. “We dont’ want to be didactic, ” he stresses. “This is character-driven theater, not issue-based theater. Characters have the interesting lives and that makes for compelling theater.”
Indeed, the two main characters in “Flipside” are based on real people, Nick, a now-retired undercover drug enforcement agent, and Bo, a teen involved with the other side of the drug issue. Much of the play resluted from hours of taped interviews with the two individuals by another co-artistic director Julie Rosenblatt, which were subsequently reworked by members of the company into a play with an overall story arc. This basic story was supplemented with interviews with other local individuals, to flesh out other details integral to the story.
Tate is concerned that the description may lead potential audience members to think that the play is “a downer.” While it is designed to be powerful, he explains that the play contains poetry written by members of the cast along with a three-member hip-hop women’s chorus that comments on the action or enhances a specific point. There’s also an original musical score, composed by Martin Carillo, who works out of Los Angeles and also perfected the sound design for this effort.
Brian Jennings plays Nick, the conflicted cop at the center of the story. A professional actor and director, as well as an instructor at the Greater Hartford Academy for the Performing Arts, explains that “I love the process used by the Hartbeat Ensemble. Everyone has a voice in the script at all stages of the production. Everytime we come in, we may shift scenes, change dialogue or adjust characterizations. I have been amazed at how much the work has evolved since we first did the workshop a year ago.”
Chinaza Uche, the young actor who plays Bo and whose photo graces the posters and window cards used to publicize the show, is a Hartford native who was actually one of Jennings’ former students at the Hartford Academy. Following graduation from West Hartford’s Hall High School in 2005, he went to receive a degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He returned to Hartford where he has remained active with Hartbeat in recent years. Tineisha Duggan and Cindy Martinez, who play two of the members of the women’s chorus, share a similar history with Uche–they are also former students of Jennings at the Academy.
Martinez, who has been involved with Hartbeat virtually from its inception, also works as the organization’s Community Outreach Liaison. “I’m always trying to reach out to new audiences. We have played at venues throughout Hartford, but there are still many people out there who do not know about us. This downtown venue for “Flipside” will allow us to reach yet a different audience. We’re hoping that many people will want to come to the play and make this an evening out in Hartford, taking advantage of the many fine restaurants and bars right in the downtown area.” Martinez has also contributed some poetry to the show, some of which has been set to music by Carillo. Just recently she heard for the first time one of her poems recited by costar Dugan with Carillo’s music in the background and was “pleasantly surprised.”
The development of “Flipside” followed the Ensemble’s typical three-part process. Once the company agrees on an idea, a series of interviews are conducted with local folk involved on the front lines of that particular subject, followed by a year spent reviewing the material and coalescing it into a script, usually under the auspices of a lead writer. For “Flipside,” Rosenblatt served in that capacity. Once a draft script is completed, a number of readings are held, culminating in a formally-staged workshop. Reaction to that workshop sets in motion the final year of development of a fully-staged finished product. “Flipside” was inspired when Rosenblatt and other members of the Ensemble participated in a conference on drug issues held at Central Connecticut State University, where a former undercover operative explained how his own views dramatically changed and evolved during his career. The Ensemble jumped on the opportunity to interview the agent and the process was set in motion.
“Flipside” was developed as part of Hartbeat’s New Play Initiative, which has been funded by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving for the creation of locally-based plays that can resonate throughout the regino.
Performances of “Flipside” begin on Thursday, April 28, at the Hollander Building, 410 Asylum Street, with the theater entrance on High Street. All performances are at 7:30 p.m. The production plays every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening from April 28 to May 21. Tate is serving as the production coordinator, with writing and direction credited to the members of the Ensemble. Tickets are $20, or $15 for students, seniors, and Let’s Go Arts members.
For information, visit hartbeatensemble.org or call (860) 548-9144.