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The Little Festival That Could

In the mid-18th Century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau dreamt of a new kind of artistic event. He had experienced such a space as a boy in Geneva, where men recently returned from militia exercises would play drums around the fountain in his local square. The communion was irresistible  for local residents, who descended onto the fountain, capering late into the night with wine on their tongues. In today’s terms, this was a “happening”; to Rousseau, this was his vision of a festival. He wrote, “Plant a stake in the middle of a square and crown it with flowers, gather the people, and you will have a festival.”

Tom Griggs, co-Director of the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas, an institution that turns 25 this year, unwittingly echoed Rousseau’s ideals. Until recently, the heart of the festival had always been the New Haven Green. “The elm trees around the Green are our ionic columns,” he said, substituting the intimidating columns that herald a visit to theatres and museums for the welcoming foliage that the Elm City is named after. The Festival is unique for a number of reasons: it is largely free, it attracts thinkers and artists from across the world, and, in the wake of COVID-19, it is one of the few festivals in the country that have transitioned their entire programming online. The organizers have planted their stake in a digital square and are waiting to see if the people will gather.

In previous years, the month of June saw the world intersect with New Haven. Local artists and leaders discussing community issues were programmed alongside MacArthur Genius Grant winners and international theatre troupes. As its name suggests, the Festival aims to marry creative expression (arts) with a symposium on the state of society (ideas). This year, their theme is “Democracy: We the People.” Despite the transition online, neither mission nor theme has changed. “We never talked about stopping. It never came up,” Aleta Staton, the Community Engagement Manager, told The Politic.

For the organizers, March saw a domino effect of cancellations and disappointments. First, the visas fell through. As borders began to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19, international artists were denied travel. The implementation of social distancing policy left in doubt whether even local guests could attend.  When their last hope was dashed, to mount the concert on the Green that is usually the summit of the festivities, the decision to transition online was announced in April. Sponsors, which make up 92 percent of the Festival’s funding, all agreed to the move. Peers across the country, like SXSW in Austin, had fallen afoul of the virus and cancelled without online alternatives.  A sponsor told Griggs that, in continuing, “You are not just making a physical decision; you are making a psychological one,” to remind people that community can survive these times and that the arts are the food for its survival. “I wonder if we look back in a year, we become the little festival that could,” Griggs said.

Although unchanged at its core, the Festival has shifted its focus especially on two communities suffering economically from the pandemic: local artists and small businesses. On May 15, over 300 New Haveners bought a toolkit from Modern Apizza as part of Keybank Food Events. Over Zoom, participants prepared the restaurant’s staple meals and cocktails. “It was like a rowdy bar,” Griggs recalled. 45 minutes after the event had officially finished, 50 people were still present, mulling in the convivial atmosphere. With the Arts on Call program, residents can book socially distanced performances from local artists. The money for each performance goes straight into the artists’ pocket. Innovations are also evident elsewhere. Kids can build models of the New Haven they want to see in Minecraft, rather than on the Green. Theatre collective, Compagnia de’ Colombari, have transformed their adaptation of a Walt Whitman poem, “More or Less I Am,” into a Zoom performance. 

As with everything in the time of corona, disruption has not been felt equally. Neighborhood festivals in Dixwell and the Hill are usually a major component of Staton’s community engagement efforts; her team provides resources and guides planning for local organizers. These have been moved to next year. Although the New Haven Festival continues to be entirely free this year, internet and computer access is not a guarantee for low-income and elderly residents. To many, the arts have always felt remote, a realm for stories and audiences that didn’t represent them. Rousseau, too, railed against a French theatre that flattered only the ruling classes’ tastes. In other years, Festival Ambassadors would buddy up with neighbors who might feel unwelcome at arts events and encourage them to attend with free tickets. That work is difficult in the digital sphere. Griggs conceded that this might not be the year in which the Festival claims new audiences in New Haven.

Without the unique physical quality of public gathering, programming must also compete with the colossal options of Internet content and even the weather. Sunny summer days don’t exactly encourage extensive screen-time. “I miss that,” Staton admits, recalling a spontaneous dance with the Festival’s high school and college fellows on the Green last year, a scene seemingly plucked from Rousseau’s dreams.

Talking to organizers, their hope teeters on the mechanical. To plug their work daily, to concede to a festival that they never imagined, to do all this work in a climate of isolation and political turmoil, hope is not easy to come by. When I ask Staton what has been lost in the transition, she pushes back: “I think about it more as what is different. There are no losses or gains.” The New Haven Pride Center is programming several events to coincide with one of the Festival’s virtual speakers, poet and activist Stephanie Burt. A long-standing collaboration with New Haven Public Library is providing texts to young students in the city. Staton has been doing the work herself, driving to people’s homes to help them navigate computers and hand out books. “Community is about digging in,” she explains. Dug deep for a quarter of a century, a pandemic cannot uproot the Festival’s community ties.

“You will have a festival,” Rousseau wrote. “Better yet; make the spectators themselves the spectacle; make them the actors; arrange it so that each sees and loves themselves in the other, so that all will be better united.” Forced to focus their efforts inwards, on a local scale, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas inches closer to Rousseau’s vision.

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