Al-Kasaba Theatre members, scheduled to perform “Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation” at New Haven’s seventh annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas this summer, are trapped in Palestine. Just 60 days before the festival begins, festival Director Mary Miller — not to be confused with Saybrook College Master Mary Miller — sat calmly before her blue styrofoam cup of coffee and questioned whether the group will even be able to perform in New Haven.
“They’re virtually barricaded into their offices,” Miller said.
The fate of many of the members of the Inbal Pinto Dance Company from Tel Aviv was unknown as well. Miller said some could end up in the Israeli army before the festival begins.
Despite the difficulty overseas, Miller said she has no regrets about taking the risk of inviting the two groups to perform.
“There has never been a more important and poignant time to bring groups from Palestine and Israel here,” she said.
This willingness to bring international artists and community members together in the latter half of June has come to characterize the diverse, and sometimes controversial, annual festival. Since its inception seven years ago, the festival has tried to bring communities together that would not otherwise interact.
“Basically, Anne Calabresi, Jean Handley and I were looking for ways to bring communities together that don’t always get together,” said Roslyn Meyer, vice president of the festival’s Board of Directors. “We thought that the art — and particularly the international art — would be a way for people to get together — and experience common humanness with their neighbors.”
It was Calabresi who came up with the initial idea for the festival. She, Handley and Meyer are considered to be its co-founders.
“In my innocence, when I started this, I thought this would be a way for Yale to exhibit — and advertise its extraordinary graduate schools of the arts,” Calabresi said.
Over the years, the festival has become much more than an exhibition of Yale talent. With performers coming from as far away as South Africa, and with a forum on everything from United States foreign policy to New Haven’s controversial urban renewal era, festival planners have made an effort to include representatives from as many cultures and backgrounds as possible without ignoring New Haven communities.
“I think that there has been an enormous participation of many of the communities here,” Meyer said. “I think it’s been a terrific mix of programming — and I think people have been more and more adventurous in terms of the kinds of things they’ll go to see.”
The unique backgrounds of previous directors have ensured that every year, a different aspect of the festival is highlighted. Miller, who was a concert violinist in the United Kingdom at the start of her career, said her background prompted her to include more music in the program this year.
“I think that I can bring to the festival the idea that music can be used as background,” she said. “This festival is strongly rooted in theater and dance — and we can enrich that with music.”
But the festival’s success cannot rest solely upon the worth of its diverse program.
“I still don’t think that we’re on the map in the international festival community,” Meyer said.
She added that greater effort should be paid to inviting international media to the festival’s events in order to achieve worldwide recognition.
But financial considerations have limited the festival’s visibility. Calabresi said that advertising in places like New York City would help the festival’s attendance, but it is simply too expensive to consider.
“I think there are just a zillion people in New York that would come up,” Calabresi said.
And Miller said that while most supporters of the festival have remained committed to making the events possible, even funds from long-time contributors are something the festival must continue to earn.
“We have to prove every year that we can just be better and better,” Miller said.
State support has proven essential to the festival’s vitality since the beginning, although funding for the festival itself is not guaranteed.
“[Gov. John G. Rowland] has recognized that one of the great attractions to our urban centers depends on having that kind of arts culture,” Rowland spokesman Chris Cooper said. “I know that he thinks [the Arts and Ideas Festival is] a great, great festival that brings a lot of people into the city.”
In an effort to include more of New Haven’s diverse artistic community, a fringe festival, called The Edge, will make its debut this year as a venue for lesser-known artists and performers. The family program will also be expanded this year in an effort to attract more of New Haven’s younger residents to the festival’s events.
“The whole point of [The Edge] is — it’s open to absolutely everybody,” Miller said. “The festival has a very important role to play in bringing together voices that aren’t necessarily heard.”