Portrait of a program

Ben Allison and Robert Pinsky. Image courtesy of the Festival.

A conversation with the International Festival of Arts & Ideas’ Cathy Edwards

By David A. Brensilver

Cathy Edwards, director of programming at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, spoke recently with the editor of The Arts Paper about this year’s lineup.

Q: The themes of the 2009, 2010, and 2011 festivals were, respectively, “Global Identities/Local Heroes,” “Celebrating Shared Experiences,” and “Across Borders, Beyond Time.” This year’s theme is “Serious Fun.” Would you talk about how you and your colleagues arrive at a particular year’s theme? This year’s theme has a lighter implication. Still, the festival’s programming is, as always, diverse and compelling. Is “Serious Fun” more of a reaction to the times than anything else, or am I reading into it?

A: Finding a theme is always an adventure – we look at the projects we are assembling for the festival and inevitably find a zeitgeist among those projects and our own sense of what this community is looking for. “Serious Fun” – we really felt like the artists and shows for this June were sparkling with joy and were going to be so entertaining that we should celebrate that sense of play and fun right at the top, in our theme. Of course the festival is always enlightening and educational as well as entertaining – so that is where we get the serious part! And yes, we did feel that New Haven needs a little fun right now. It is summer and it’s been a long year. We want to come out and be lighthearted together, even while we learn and stretch ourselves to experience new things. Audiences are going to fall in love with CIRCA, who are literally jaw-droppingly acrobatic, and what is more fun than circus? And, they are going to have an incredibly good time with the National Theater of Scotland performers during Prudencia Hart at the Wicked Wolf, and along the way experience dinosaurs on the Green, the sublime musicality and humor of Mark Morris Dance Group, and the bhangra meets funk of the Indian “brass ‘n dhol” band Red Baraat … yes, this is a festival packed with fun!

Q: The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, in 2009, described the Asphalt Orchestra as “an iconoclastic 12-piece marching band … Part parade spectacle, part halftime show and part cutting-edge contemporary-music concert.” The International Festival of Arts & Ideas website describes the group as a “one-of-a-kind street marching band that brings ambitious music to the masses in an exciting, take-over-the-crowd performance,” and indicates that the ensemble will perform “music from the likes of Frank Zappa and Björk, with choreography by Susan Marshall.” This particular performance seems to me to be one that captures what the festival is really all about: making diverse, compelling, world-class artists and productions accessible to everyone. Frank Zappa certainly achieved/delivered that. Would you talk a bit about programming the festival each year with that mission in mind?

A: We have a really curious and adventurous audience, and I think when it comes to the festival, it is time to try new things and everyone knows that the festival is going to provide that unexpected, out-of-the-box experience. We very purposefully are looking for artistic experiences that the public would not encounter at other times or under the auspices of other cultural organizations here in New Haven. We are trying to reframe artistic experiences in a way that provides a lot of points of entry and encourages delight and participation. Asphalt Orchestra is a great example of that – bringing new music and cult music and popular music to the marching band form – just as the National Theater of Scotland with Prudencia Hart is a great example of that – world-class theater, but in a bar! With National Theater of Scotland, we loved the show – it is really beautifully performed by a top-flight ensemble of performers who are both actors and musicians – and written by one of Scotland’s foremost writers, David Greig. It’s also a very touching, funny, and romantic story. The fact that it takes place in a bar, with the audience essentially part of the performance and the actors materializing at the tables around us – that was just so perfect because we always want to deeply engage audiences in fresh approaches to theater.

Q: Ben Allison is a native New Havener. How important do you feel it is for the festival to showcase local artists and to what degree? Would you talk a bit about Allison’s scheduled performance with poet Robert Pinsky?

A: We are always excited when we have a chance to work with a New Haven artist, and last year’s Jack Hitt production was a great example of that – without the festival’s involvement, it would not have been able to happen – we commissioned the piece and did so because of our long relationship with Jack here in our community. Now the piece is going on to the Spoleto Festival and is touring around the country. In Ben Allison’s case, we introduced him to Robert Pinsky several years ago, when we were working with Robert on the Favorite Poem Project. We asked the two of them to come together for a special event performance that happened as part of the lead-up to the festival. They really hit it off and put together a great improvised evening of music and poetry. It was fantastic that the festival had a catalytic role like that, and Robert and Ben have performed together a number of times since then. We felt that since we had been the ones to bring them together in the first place, it was time to present their collaboration as a full evening performance and invite the public to see the magic that they create together! Robert jokes that he is the saxophone player in Ben’s ensemble.

Q: The Yuval Ron Ensemble is described on the festival’s website as a group that “unites the sacred music traditions of Judaism, Sufism, and the Armenian Church into an unusual mystical, spiritual and inspiring musical celebration. The ensemble of musicians and dancers includes Arab, Jewish and Christian artists.” The festival will also present a concert “that honors the music and spirit of great women in jazz, folk, R&B, gospel, and the blues.” Is it ever far from your mind that the more divided our politics are, especially along cultural lines, the more important it is to remind audiences that the arts are about common languages and ideals?

A: Yes! You hit the nail on the head. An endeavor like Yuval Ron’s is a celebration of the sacred traditions that we share and of the music that unites us, even in a political world that increasingly highlights divisions and not commonalities. Yuval’s performance is going to be the perfect grace note to our series in Sprague Hall this year. And the ensemble includes (a) dancer and whirling dervish, too!

Q: Please talk, if you would, about Group Intelligence, in which, to quote once again from the festival’s website, “audience members start their MP3 units, each playing a different a soundtrack of music, narration, and instructions for each audience member to perform specific actions.” This does sound like “Serious Fun.” What else does it offer, in a larger sense?

A: This is kind of a quintessential Arts & Ideas project – it was actually commissioned by the Center for Chemical Evolution, in order to demonstrate to the public the potent connections between molecules that generate new life. Out of Hand Theater Company, which created Group Intelligence, worked very closely with scientists at Emory University and Georgia Tech to understand the inherent possibilities of molecular bonding, and then they created a participatory theatrical experience that conveys to the public the wonder of “bonding” – in this case, creating strong new ties with fellow citizens that also spark life! This is a perfect example of what we try to do at the festival – create experiences that bond us to our neighbors and lead to new possibilities. Plus, it is just a fun and adventurous project – it will get us a bit out of our comfort zone as we share simple tasks and create new patterns for ourselves, and meet some new people. We are also sponsoring an Ideas talk for the scientists, so audience members with a scientific bent can learn even more about the science of developing new life, and the ways in which cooperation as well as competition lead to new life.

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