Arts & Ideas Still Evolving, 20 Years In. by Lucy Gellman of the New Haven Independent

When Mary Lou Aleskie took over the International Festival of Arts & Ideas in September 2005, she didn’t know that much about New Haven. She’d moved to the Elm City from San Diego for the position, so everything was new to her. Neighborhoods sprang up, full of possibility, performance venues popped out of the woodwork. She was greeted by a local arts scene that, for a city of just over 130,000 people, was more “jam-packed” than she ever could have anticipated.

Aleskie hasn’t stopped trying to nail down the rhythm of New Haven, or satiate its hunger for local and international arts. Over 11 years, she has seen — and enacted — considerable change, taking the community into account whenever possible.

As she prepared to announce on Tuesday the festival’s year 21 programming, the Independent had the chance to talk about how Arts & Ideas has changed, what truly involving community looks like, and what new steps have her excited looking ahead to summer 2016 and beyond.

Before the big Arts & Ideas announcement, I wanted to get a better feeling from you of this year’s festival. I’m interested in how this festival is curated every year, and how you you approached it differently this season.

MLA: So this is the 21st festival, and … it’s not a curatorial choice, but it is somewhat appropriate that at 21, we’re starting out the year drinking, in a pub with Prudencia Hart, at the Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale (GPSCY)]. I think that just like the evolution of a human being, this festival has matured and grown, and continues to. It is deeply informed by the community that it lives in and the space it embodies.

In the early days of this festival, it was like a walk through an incredible nursery. You pick some of the most beautiful blossoms and you put them together and you bring them back and you present them as a beautiful, colorful present to the community and to our audience. In more recent years, I would say that we’re spending more time thinking about what that collection of blossoms reflect about the other blossoms in the vase, and how it looks on the table. Last year, when we were feeling the sort of surge of torment in our country around race and democracy, we thought it was important to address that. Did we know how much worse it would get, that Charleston would happen in the midst of the festival? I don’t think anyone did.

There are cornerstones that we identify early on in that three-year planning process, that we think are important anchors, that are important to the world, that add a new perspective to an idea or an issue.

LG: I’m wondering if you can speak a little more about the different communities in New Haven, and how Arts & Ideas really is intended to bring them together.

MLA: This festival was founded not to share art, but to make a better city, and to make neighbors know each other. Being an international performing arts festival with an ideas component was really more the tool than the actual reason to be. Everything that we curate, we’re interested in how it reflects to our atmosphere. We’re also really interested in making sure that there are at least three or four disparate groups of people that we believe would be interested in this particular work, who typically wouldn’t be in a room together.

So when we consider New Haven, we’re not only considering New Haven — because, in fact, it’s about our residents and about our relationship to the city — but it’s also about bringing visitors here. Half of our audience is from New Haven, but the other half comes from Boston to New York with a large concentration from throughout Connecticut. So we’re interested in finding that balance in any given program between those people who live in New Haven broadly — something that’s as interesting to people who live in Wooster Square as it is to people who live in Dixwell — but also that has a regional appeal, so that visitors have a reason to come as well.

LG: One of the criticisms that I’ve heard about Arts & Ideas — and I know some people don’t know that there’s a lot of free programming — is that some people say: “well, I can’t afford to go to something like Machine de Cirque or Ragamala.” There’s a perceived air of exclusivity. Is that something you’re thinking about all the time?

MLA: All the time. In fact, really it was about five or six years ago that we started to take action about that. We always make sure that every performance has a lower price ticket, a $25 ticket. But also, we have a ticket fund that people can contribute to ... last year we gave $130,000 worth of tickets away to make every performance accessible. There are a number of things that we’re doing that are pay as you wish.

I‘m also deeply concerned that everyone in this city feels that they have a fair opportunity for a job here, whether that’s a paid job, a performance, a volunteer position — it’s not just about making sure that our audience feels welcome. It’s about making sure that everybody feels a sense of ownership of this organization in whatever way they can contribute or participate. In the earliest years of this organization, there was a strong commitment to youth and youth activism. That kind of went away ... it weakened over the years, I think mostly because of funding. But there was always a deep commitment to the idea that we were in service to the community.

In the early years, we would involve artists, teaching artists in the neighborhoods. We would do a project ... that would be part of the festival, then we’d move on. That’s great, except for two pieces of it: We create the project, and we move on. What’s the sustained relationship there?

About six years ago, grappling with this, and grappling with our own sense that there needed to be greater ownership of this from within, we started our fellowship program. It’s for sophomores and juniors in high school. They’re New Haven school kids ... who have creative interests but may not have a clear path ahead for whatever reason. We have at least three hours a week where they’re in a classroom with a teacher, using the festival as a teaching tool. It’s the core of teaching critical observation and communication skills. They come back as interns, paid jobs, youth at work ... they’re becoming part of the ongoing festival family. Which is incredible ... because not only were they becoming part of our family, but their families were becoming part of our family.

LG: And the pop-ups?

MLA: That the fellowship program was the beginning of the pop-up festivals. We said, “now we have all of these great people who are part of our world. We were able to transform a city by putting a festival downtown. What if we gave you our skills, in how we make a festival, and you make a festival for yourselves?” That’s how the pop-ups were born.

We now have an ambassadorship program in the neighborhoods. If there are people in [the ambassadors’] neighborhoods that they feel need a little bit more of a welcome to feel comfortable, they have up to six or eight comps for each performance that they can bring people to. Sometimes it’s not about the cost so much as it s about how comfortable I feel in a place. We need to make sure we’re overcoming not just the financial barrier but also the sociological barrier.

LG: Absolutely, you see that all the time with institutions like the Yale Art Gallery ... completely free, but folks say: ‘I can’t go in, it’s not for me.’

MLA: Absolutely. If I welcome people, that’s a very different than if Diane Brown at Dixwell [Stetson] Library welcomes people. It’s about pushing that invitation into the hands of the community so that community members can welcome community members. We’ve been around for 21 years, and you’re in a place like New Haven, where people stay for generations and generations. Perceptions are very hard to change over time. So there are those people who still are going to sit in their chairs, maybe even a decade from now, and say: ‘those are those white people downtown and I can’t afford it.’ If that’s their perception we just need to keep working harder. As young people get involved, and they’re getting their families involved, it’s easier for us to make that case.

LG: Do you think A&I is still met with some hostility, though?

MLA: I haven’t quite felt or experienced that. There are longstanding traditions and behaviors in this city that are very hard to overcome, but it’s best to overcome them, I think, by doing. Just behaving in the way that says, “this is who I am and this is the way we engage.” I look out this window [her office window] every day and I look at the highways. I look at how divided we are. All I see are bridges. I think we’re better when we talk about ourselves as an extended family in this town. I think we’ve proven that is possible.

LG: When you’re booking the events on the Green, it seems to me that there’s been an increased eye towards community. Yeah?

MLA: It’s an important part of what we think about. It’s also an important part of what our community has made at our pop-ups ... things like Hanan Hameen’s Africa and Me! that happens at the Stetson Library is happening now on the Green regularly. There are other things ... Krikko with his drawings and drawing workshops. There are so many things that we’ve learned. Carlos Santiago y Su Momento Musical, who opened for Plena Libre, we met at the Fair Haven Pop-Up. So we’re learning.

LG: Yale is a great boon to the community and to Arts & Ideas, but what about town-gown? I think it’s pretty important and vital to have your fingers on the pulse of the city.

MLA: Yeah. New Haven is small enough but jam-packed. The emotion, the culture, the dynamism of any large city all in this geographic area with a small number of people. Frankly, we feel like we’re a way to bridge that town-gown gap. We do connect with the Yale community n a very productive and fruitful way.

LG: Let’s talk about GPSCY, which is where you’re kicking things off Wednesday with The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. That’s a funky venue.

MLA: Well, we did the U.S. premiere of Prudencia Hart in 2012. The story is about an uptight academic who is a scholar of Scottish ballads. It happens in a bar, and we produced it at the [since shuttered] Wicked Wolf. It was great fun, but it happened in June, so the academic joke wasn’t there. We got very excited about continuing our relationship with the National Theatre of Scotland ... and Prudencia was on its fourth national tour. So we thought: wouldn’t it be really fun to bring it back, and to do it in a place where people don’t typically get to go? So GPSCY became a petty obvious good idea. It’s a very cool bar that a lot of people don’t get to go into, so we feel like when we bring people into the Yale community that don’t typically spend time in it, we’re creating bridges and a sense of comfort on the campus, which is a good thing. And a free dram of scotch, which is part of the show.

LG: As far as planning, it sounds like you’ve got so many balls up in the air at once. But do you feel like different events inform each other? Some things dovetail and some things don’t — I think that’s the way any big festival is going to be. But do you feel like your different sources are informing each other, and making you think about the arts in New Haven differently?

MLA: Absolutely. That’s a big part of the give and take. The international work that we’re doing now takes more effort for a lot of reasons than it did when this festival was founded. There’s the obvious — the threats of the world, the visa issues, and the challenges that come with getting artists into the country is really a heavy lift. Long ago were the days when you could identify a company from the international community and just say “oh! Come, do a show and come back.” It takes planning because artists from abroad don’t want to come to the United States, especially for one performance. We’re having to get involved with collaborating with colleagues in different places around our country to make sure that whoever comes, comes with an opportunity for more performances.

Our funding is precarious ... it seems to get more precarious as the days go on. So we rely increasingly on international funding sources to fund American performances of international artists. Sometimes they come in direct subsidies from those governments, sometimes they come in subsidies that go to the company for their fee — that trust and that negotiation takes time. So all of the international work is on a much longer timeline than the domestic work is. So we’re always looking for those pieces that we think, from an international perspective, adds a new look at something we may know something about.

LG: This year, does something feel different? Does something feel special or particular, now that you’re beyond Festival 20?

MLA: There s a freshness to this year, I think. We have a new director of programming, Chad Herzog, who came and joined us right before last year’s festival. There were a number of cornerstones in our programming already in place when he arrived, but there was much built around it since his arrival. I think the freshness of a new person in the conversation, a new approach, adds a lot of value.

We’re going to be doing some new things on the main stage that we haven’t done before. That includes an actual circus show in collaboration with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. It’s the 150th anniversary of the bicycle, and there’s a lot that you’ll see about how things work in the programming, so there’s that. We’re using the hospitality area around the stage in different ways. We’re looking forward to sharing it.

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