While Yalies and New Haven residents alike may bemoan the city’s lack of a first-run movie theater, this June they will see a show come through town that is decidedly less stationary, but still in surround sound. On June 10, the sound of drums – hundreds and hundreds of them snaking across the city and culminating in an enormous concert on the Green – will open New Haven’s tenth annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas, a bonanza of cultural expression and showcase of tremendous artistic creativity.
This year’s festival, which will last 16 days, is expected to draw around 100,000 people and generate as much as $20 to 25 million worth of business for the city. Most Yale students will be gone for the summer when the festival begins on June 16, but those still in New Haven will be able to enjoy an artistic display organizers describe as on par with more well-known festivals in much larger cities, an attempt to draw national and international renown to the city’s renaissance.
Hartford Courant arts writer Frank Rizzo, who has followed the festival since its inception, said it has helped New Haven carve out a unique cultural niche within the region.
“The festival brings the world to Connecticut and allows people interested in art to see things they wouldn’t see otherwise,” Rizzo said. “The festival doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator but brings a high level of culture and introduces people to new things.”
Though the festival seeks out artists and intellectuals from all over the world, its emphasis is local. Three ambitious New Haven women — Anne Tyler Calabresi, Jean Handley and Roslyn Meyer — developed the idea for the festival in the early 1990s as a means to sparking social cohesion and economic growth after a rough patch in the city’s history.
In conjunction with the festival, artists take up residence in New Haven communities, collaborate with locals and produce art specific to the community. The festival employs over 1,000 Connecticut artists and a sizable staff to provide technical support.
For festival director Mary Miller, stimulating a sense of unified purpose and cultural diversity is the greatest reward of the festival.
“There’s a lot of increasingly good work going on in New Haven and the festival hoop plays a major part in that,” Miller said. “I would love to come back in five years and find this creativity all over the city and not just downtown. It would be great if in the next 10 years the festival pushed forward to say something for everyone in the city.”
This year’s festival will feature a Norwegian brass sextet, an evening with Salman Rushdie, a Spanish fusion band experimenting with hip-hop, an African-American opera company performing spirituals and jazz, a one-man monologue/circus act for mature audiences only and dozens of other eclectic events.
In 1998, “Copenhagen,” later a Tony Award winner for best play, premiered at the International Festival. The festival has staged a Lithuanian production of a Shakespeare play — in Lithuanian — and provoked controversy by inviting a Palestinian theater company to perform politically charged pieces.
“They caused a tremendous reaction and were challenging for the city and festival,” Miller said of the Palestinian company. “But I feel that the festival should put on work that people have had a strong reaction to. What you fear is indifference. Because the festival is unusual, in perhaps an unexpected city, you want the kinds of artists who are interested in challenging themselves and their audiences.”
But the festival’s future remains uncertain, reliant on state funding to underwrite much of the festival’s considerable budget. With the resignation of Gov. John Rowland, a staunch supporter of the festival, state funding is not even guaranteed for this June.
“There’s a real concern that the support is not going to be there from the state,” Derek Slap, the spokesman for Mayor John DeStefano Jr., said. “It’s an important event for New Haven that speaks to what New Haven’s strengths are. We’re doing everything we can to get the funding.”
To cover the shortfall of state funds, the festival has had to lean on several sponsors, especially Yale. Festival organizers said Yale has been generous with funds and in opening some venues for festival use, but Rizzo challenged the University for not doing enough.
“Yale has helped to a large degree but hasn’t necessarily gone all the way in doing as much as it could do,” Rizzo said. “Yale’s had mixed participation in the festival. Some venues are hands-off and that adds to the reputation that Yale is not interested in the community.”
But Barbara Lamb, the city’s director of cultural affairs, said the University has in general been very supportive.
“When you take into consideration the fact that it’s summer and the University’s closed down, I haven’t heard the complaint that Yale could go further,” Lamb said. “One of the reasons for holding the festival in the summer is to showcase Yale’s facilities. My sense is that Yale chips in quite a bit and helps out where it can.”
The festival, which began in 1996, runs from June 10 to June 25.