Helen Bartlett '81 may live near Hollywood and work in the film industry, but she keeps her feet firmly planted on the ground. She has weathered the past few months in her home in California, and despite the pandemic, an economic crisis, and wildfires in her state, she is keeping positive.
It isn’t surprising that Bartlett is making her way through this difficult time with grace—she’s innovated since her time at Trinity, where she designed her own major. She crafted her study in poetry/ creative writing and dance. Bartlett had to make a case for her course of study, and worked with her advisors Judy Dworin ’70 and Hugh Ogden to present her proposal to the curriculum committee. Her early practice advocating for ideas she believed in would be useful for her later career in the film industry. “Whether in dance or in creative writing, you try to communicate and express yourself in an unusual, true way and with clarity. It’s all about ideas and storytelling, it’s about having a sense of wanting to build something, and it comes across through communicating effectively and with passion.”
These communication skills became vital as Bartlett progressed in her career. Through her company Barnstorm Films, Bartlett has produced eight feature films, and more television shows. “We make movies about real stories with real characters. The stories have to be moving,” she said. It’s important to her to hear the voices of others that may not be heard— voices like a female coal miner who along with other female workers brought a groundbreaking class action sexual harassment suit in the film North Country. Or, the movie she produced, In The Time Of The Butterflies, about the Mirabal sisters who worked against a dictatorial regime in the Dominican Republic. Bartlett is encouraged by what seems to be an increased interest in telling stories like North Country, particularly in the post “Me Too” era. “It resonates: What does it feel like to be a female in all male world, trying to make your way?” she said.
For her own part, the questions she has always asked herself about her work– how to include more female roles, more people of color, how to support and hire more female directors, are all issues that are top of her mind along with her colleagues. “I feel empowered to fight for a story that has an original voice. The battle to get that story told comes from being confident in having a really great education. Trinity supported me in that. I learned that my thoughts were valuable,” Bartlett said. For the Trinity students that have yet to begin their careers, she offered this thought: “Follow your heart, be clear and be true to what you want to do—don’t get caught up in being commercial.” She knows from experience: “The least commercial idea often becomes a hit movie or critical success.”
“I remember we were trying to sell a movie set in the bluegrass world,” Bartlett recalls, “And the film company said no, Bluegrass was not commercial.” Bartlett, not to be discouraged, thought of how to bring the music to life. “We set a another meeting with the head of the studio to talk about the movie. We did not show. Instead we sent two of the finest bluegrass fiddlers in the country. The unexpected performance worked in selling the pitch. The unconventional approach Bartlett credits to the skills she gained in her college years— “Be creative. Trinity gave me that.”
For the moment, Bartlett is trying to enjoy the things that have been the silver lining for a difficult time. She remains connected to Connecticut through her involvement in a community of farmers and her own small farm in Litchfield county. At home in California, though she has had some of the wildfire smoke drift her way, she and her family remain safe.
“I find inspiration reading poetry,” Bartlett says. She has also been writing her own. “I sent a poem of some our greatest poets out every day to about 60 women, and a few men, that expressed fears and hope. These poems supported me and my sense that things will be right again.” She has also been continuing her work with her favorite nonprofits, including one that supports farmers in Litchfield County, where her family resides as often as possible.
Above all, Bartlett finds it important to stay grounded—literally. “Get your hands dirty,” she said. She has found solace working in her garden, printing on her 1890 printing press, and feeding her chickens in her Venice, CA home.
In many ways, Bartlett has found even living in a city, that “Nature has a way of coming back—during these Covid days when traffic stopped, hawks were flying over, geese were on the golf course next door, opossums were in the garden at night. Nature is a lot stronger than I knew. That has given me hope.”
She offered, “There’s one more thing my husband and daughters and I do in this house during these dark times.” It’s something that’s stayed with her for years from Trinity: “We just turn up the music and dance it out.”
Helen Bartlett '81
“I feel empowered to fight for a story that has an original voice. The battle to get that story told comes from being confident in having a really great education. Trinity supported me in that. I learned that my thoughts were valuable."