Chad Herzog, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas’s interim co-executive director and director of programming, stood on the stage in a large room on the first floor of Alexion, on College Street. Before him, artists and filmmakers mingled with bankers and civic leaders. A countdown clock projected on the wall that looked more like something for a sports event — maybe a nod to March Madness? — had just run out. Herzog was on stage to announce A&I’s lineup for 2017.
Past A&I festivals had always had themes.
“This is your festival,” Herzog said into the microphone.
“Yes, but what’s the theme?” the audience member shouted back.
“This is your festival!” Herzog repeated.
Herzog meant what he said at Tuesday night’s unveiling of this year’s A&I schedule.
Entering its third decade, the organization that runs A&I has learned a thing or two about putting together a weeks-long and increasingly city-wide roster of events, from concerts on the Green to kayaking trips. But with the amicable departure of longtime Executive Director Mary Lou Aleskie and the drying up of state and federal arts funding, the festival also knows how to be nimble.
Regarding the change in leadership, “the transition’s been quite great,” Herzog said. Aleskie gave A&I four months’ notice, and the organization put interim leadership in place — including Herzog — as it lauded and continues to laud the work Aleskie did in putting A&I on the map.
“For 22 years,” Herzog said, A&I “has been making festivals happen. ... Mary Lou has brought it to an amazing level internationally. ... Everyone else has come to the festival under Mary Lou’s leadership, so we’re all in a place where we know what we’re doing.”
The change in leadership also happened smoothly because, as Herzog put it, “we’re always working on three festivals.” The first glimmers of 2019’s festival are in the early planning stages. A&I works with visiting artists to help make their tours happen, and schedules many international artists to come to the States well in advance. The search for a new full-time executive director is on, Herzog said, but in the meantime, it’s business as usual: “We’re making festivals.”
This year’s festival, which runs June 3 to 24, features 200 events, including four world premieres of commissioned works. Among those commissions is the theater project (Be)Longing, by composer Byron Au Yong and New Haven-based hip-hop poet and playwright Aaron Jafferis.
The piece tackles the theme of a community emerging from tragedy, which Yong and Jafferis developed after three years of residencies and research in Blacksburg, Va., talking with survivors, family members of victims, police, and many others in the community about the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech and its aftermath. It was staged at Virginia Tech in March and will run June 17 and 18 at Long Wharf Theatre, featuring locally cast singers, beatboxers, and hip-hop artists.
Be(Longing) is an example of an event years in the making, Herzog said. A&I first caught wind of it at a talkback Jafferis gave after a performance of his and Yong’s one-man show Stuck Elevator at A&I in 2013. The festival organizers began talking to Jafferis and Yong then.
“Before they went to Blacksburg, they spent a summer in New Haven starting to work on it,” Herzog said. Four years later, they’ve returned.
A&I also commissioned the world premiere of The End of TV from the Chicago-based Manual Cinema, which combines shadow puppetry and other cinematic techniques with live music and sound to tell stories, creating something that hovers between theater, film, and concert. Manual Cinema has collaborated in the past with StoryCorps and the New York Times. This year it will be performing from Madison, Wis. to Mérida, Mexico, visiting Miami and Czech Republic before stopping at Yale’s University Theater on York Street from June 19 to June 22.
The End of TV “already has dates that it’s going to around the world after New Haven,” Herzog said.
Other works celebrating their world premieres at A&I include Whitman, Melville, Dickinson — The Passions of Bloom, an oratorio from composer Martin Bresnick that focuses on the lives of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson as filtered through the thoughts of professor and literary critic Harold Bloom. It will be performed on June 20. Master pipa player Wu Man and the classical Miró Quartet will debut a piece from Chinese composer Xioagang Ye on June 22. Both performances happen at Sprague Hall on College Street.
A new feature of the festival overall is a concert series called Altar’d Spaces, in which First and Summerfield United Methodist Church, Center Church on the Green, United Church on the Green, and Trinity Church on the Green host a variety of acts, from the New York-based Allison Cook Beatty Dance Company (June 10) to New Haven’s own composer, cornet player, and bandleader Taylor Ho Bynum (June 11) to soprano Deborah Lifton (June 14) to the comedic Happenstance Theater (also June 14).
The idea for Altar’d Spaces, Herzog explained, arose from conversations last year with community members, and particularly Bynum, an internationally touring musician who may be better known elsewhere than he is in his hometown. That got A&I staff thinking, as Herzog put it, about “how … we reshape our thinking.”
“We’ve been bringing these international artists from all over,” Herzog said, but A&I is also “about looking at our region and who we are,” including artists the festival may have overlooked in the past. “That’s why the festival started in the first place.”
So “we looked at these four incredible spaces” — the churches, said Herzog, and thought “what if we use these spaces to highlight the work of artists in our community and in our region?” And also have it that “anyone in the community can afford to go out and see them?”
A&I staff started meeting with staff from the churches on the Green. Performances were selected with their help. The festival put out requests for proposals to artists in the region, and over 100 acts applied. Festival and church staff talked about “what made the best sense for each of their spaces,” Herzog said. “They’re all quite different, but all very talented, and they’re going to be fun nights.”
As in years past, the festival has developed an eclectic lineup for its free concerts on the Green — which, perhaps surprisingly, are among the last events A&I schedules each year, though it’s simply due to the nature of the music industry for touring acts like the ones A&I books, Herzog explained. June 17 will feature two bands — Troker and Fulaso — that mix Latin American musical influences with funk, soul, hip hop, and maybe even a touch of metal. On June 18, saxophonist, composer, and arranger Jimmy Greene teams up with musicians from the New Haven Symphony Orchestra to present Beautiful Life, Volume 2, a second suite of tunes (after 2014’s Beautiful Life) celebrating the life of Ana Márquez-Greene, Jimmy’s daughter, who was killed at the age of 6 in the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown. The festival will close on June 24 with a double bill of world-music veterans Rusted Root and reggae pioneers The Wailers — yes, those Wailers — now led by original bass player Aston “Familyman” Barrett and featuring old and new members alike, performing the reggae that they made famous.
The Green will likewise be full of concerts and activities during the day. Those interested in touring the city can do so on foot or by bike or boat. The neighborhood pop-up festivals that A&I started a couple years ago make their appearances in Fair Haven (June 3), Dixwell (June 4), and the Hill (June 10). The fourth annual New Haven Documentary Film Festival, now part of A&I programming, makes its run from June 1 to June 11. Talks — the “ideas” part of the festival — on everything from economics and public policy to fiction and theater will appear all over downtown and on Yale’s campus.
A&I’s programming this year also reflects a smaller budget due to cuts in state and federal funding to the arts. “This year’s festival is working with less than we did last year — about a million dollars less. Programming dollars are a lot less,” Herzog said. Festival organizers knew those cuts were coming, and “as we’re planning, we have to be nimble enough to react to our current environment.”
The festival honored the commitments it had already made to acts it booked. But the change in budget “allows you to take a step back and do a reset, to reach out and make our community stronger collaborators with us — and to bring the best performers and the brightest thinkers to New Haven this summer.” The Alter’d Spaces programming was something of a hedge against those budget cuts; it was planned over the past six months. So was forming a stronger relationship with the New Haven Documentary Film Festival.
March 31 marks Aleskie’s last day in the office as the executive director of A&I. Herzog and the rest of the A&I crew are carrying on the festival’s work, answering the fundamental question that has driven the organization for decades.
“How do we bring the world to New Haven, and bring New Haven to the world?” Herzog said.