T he face of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas is a place.
There’s also a phrase or a name or a concept with which folks attempt to shorthand Arts & Ideas if they want to. This year’s official theme/slogan is “Dreaming New Worlds.” The kick-off act is a free concert by New Orleans R&B superstar Aaron Neville.
Mary Lou Aleskie is about to cut the ribbon on her eighth A&I as the festival’s Artistic Director. Cathy Edwards, the Director of Programming, has now booked seven A&I festivals. Other longtime staffers include Production Manager Doug Harry and Managing Director Liz Fisher.
Yet, as Mary Lou Aleskie made clear last week, many of the choices made regarding what to bring to the festival come down to location, location, location.
That location is New Haven, Connecticut.
Since the days of out-of-town tryouts of Broadway shows (with the watchcry “We bombed in New Haven”) and the subsequent era of young rock bands touring through here on their way from Boston to New York (epitomized by the early U2 poster in which bassist Adam Clayton sports a Toad’s T-shirt), the city has been known for its appreciative yet discriminating audiences. It supports a range of theater stages, concert halls, lecture halls, parks, churches and other performance spaces which can serve any occasion and which inspire festival programmers to experiment outside the proscenium-and-auditorium box. A New Haven identity is critical to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.
One of this year’s Arts & Ideas highlights is a live performance of a breakthrough work by modern composer John Luther Adams. “Songbirdsongs,” a blend of bird songs and other noises from nature, was on Adams’s first album, released in 1982. This is a revival any arts festival would be proud to have. In New Haven, however, it’s extra-special. First, the leader of the ensemble which is performing “Songbirdsongs,” Ransom Wilson, is not just one of the best-known classical flute players in the world but also a longtime faculty member of the Yale School of Music. (Wilson performs on occasion with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, by the way.) And that’s not all—Wilson’s ensemble, known as Le Train Bleu, will be performing “Songbirdsongs” in Yale’s Marsh Botanical Gardens on Mansfield Street. There’s a choice of $45 “lawn chair provided” and $35 “stand & roam” tickets for the sole 5 p.m. June 23rd concert.
Another well-known local name found on the international festival’s schedule is A Broken Umbrella Theatre. The company, which caused a stir in the stacks with its Library Project last November, used a state arts grant to refurbish the back end of the old Horowitz Brothers department store for its new bicycle-themed show Freewheelers (June 15-29 at 760 Chapel Street). Explaining how A Broken Umbrella came under the Arts & Ideas umbrella, Mary Lou Aleskie explains that “the way we look at local work is not that different from the way we look at international work. We knew we were heading in this ‘New Worlds’ direction, and their piece is about New Haven inventors and reclaiming space.”
The new music theater piece Stuck Elevator is another plum bit of programming for Arts & Ideas. The piece, which has been in development for years, had a major production at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco earlier this year and is using the Arts & Ideas gig to retool the show for a national tour. That’s impressive enough, but it’s more so when you consider that Stuck’s subject matter—the often shattered hopes and dreams of immigrants trying to succeed in America, taken for granted and shunted into menial jobs—speaks directly to a city such as New Haven, which has earned renown for progressive initiatives on immigrants’ rights. Even more impressive when you learn that Arts & Ideas actually had an earlier hand in developing this show, presenting public workshops of Stuck Elevator three summers ago in league with the Yale Institute of Music Theater. And all that is trumped by the fact that the show’s librettist, playwright Aaron Jafferis, is New Haven-born and -bred. Years ago Jafferis was doing his unique hip-hop take on Shakespeare outdoors at an A&I fringe event. Now he’s got a new musical at the festival, on the Long Wharf mainstage June 20-29. “It’s been interesting to watch his evolution from an artist-driven creator to a collaborator on a musical, which is one of the hardest things to do,” Mary Lou Aleskie says.
You could think of Aaron Jafferis as an Arts & Ideas Festival legacy. Another part of the festival which predates Aleskie’s involvement involves the “courtyard concerts” which were held in lush, stone-wall-enclosed outdoor areas at the Yale Law School and the Yale School of Graduate Studies. Always an iffy proposition during a month known for swings in weather, a couple of seasons ago every single one of the courtyard concerts was rained out. Last year the series was moved indoors, with Aleskie suggesting that “the artists performing were actually better served by the acoustics of Morse Hall. The things we were creating for this year also turned out to be better served indoors.”
Not all in Morse Hall, though. Jazz bassist Christian McBride and his combo Inside Straight (June 20) will play in that magnificent hall (part of Yale’s Sprague Hall at the corner of College and Wall streets) but, Aleskie asks rhetorically, “we have choral programs, and where’re you gonna put those?” In the Church of Saint Mary at 5 Hillhouse Avenue, it turns out, with Yale Choral Artists performing Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” at 8 p.m. June 21 and the Wroctoaw Philharmonic Choir from Poland doing their poetry-and-music mélange “The Words With Painted Sound” at 8 p.m. June 26. “Not that we won’t ever go back to the courtyards…” Aleskie says.
This year’s A&I offers three big dance shows—folk Ethiopian, classical Indian and Brazilian hip-hop—at three separate dance-friendly spaces. Another much-used dance stage in town—Yale’s Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street—is taken up this year with My Friend’s Story, a new adaptation of Chekhov’s short story “Terror” by composer Martin Bresnick, poet J.D. McClatchy and director David Chambers. All three members of that tremendous “Terror” trio, by the way, teach at Yale.
“The venues definitely drive our choices,” say Mary Lou Aleskie. “We have a unique portfolio.” And a unique outlook. Under Aleskie, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has blazed trails for a genre she calls “visualization of music.” She looks forward to producing more chamber operas and new-format musicals.
She and programmer Cathy Edwards bring in artists from all over the world—the most talked-about event at this year’s Arts & Ideas is probably the new version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by London’s Bristol Old Vic theater and the Handspring Puppet Company (June 15-23 at the Yale University Theatre). There are circus shows from Canada and elsewhere, and other big concerts on the Green include Calexico and Susana Baca (both June 16), Kronos Quartet with Wu Man (June 22) and Funkadesi (June 23).
But this international festival also thrives, Aleskie says with pride, on “elevating what is here in New Haven.”
The International Festival of Arts & Ideas, June 15-29
Various theaters and concert halls in New Haven, as well as the New Haven Green.
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Kevin Berne.