Look at the bright side of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas being forced to wipe out its live events in the 2020 coronavirus crisis: There is an early start to the stimulating Ideas portion of the schedule. Of course, it is being presented online this spring, but what isn’t?
The meaty Ideas events get rolling Tuesday, May 12, and continue through Friday, June 26, with a worthy theme of “Democracy: We the People.”
While you can’t see them in person, you can attend them safely via computer, and the presentations are interactive as they “bring together vital thinkers and doers to address and engage with national and international issues through the microcosm of the culturally rich, diverse and complex communities of New Haven,” according to an A&I release.
Not that the topic of democracy wasn’t compelling (and under fire) before, but it has gained importance during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare government and medical shortcomings and further imperiled at-risk demographics.
On the schedule in the first several events are 2012 Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco, NEA Big Read author Stephanie Burt and writer Anand Giridharadas.
While much of A&I’s prep work for the June festival was spoiled, a series of public forums months ago around the concept of democracy laid the groundwork for this year’s Ideas programming — evolving due to the current moment of crisis and change. And New Haven is ideally suited to explore big topics due to its diverse demographics.
“The United States was founded on both freedom and slavery, human rights and genocide,” said festival Co-Directors Liz Fisher and Tom Griggs in the release. “Our country is still coping with the contradictions of its founding, while grappling with very real and intractable issues in the present.
“We believe that connection is more important than ever as we experience this unprecedented situation together. The festival’s Ideas programming invites our New Haven community to consider some of the most important questions facing our nation: How do we celebrate our shared humanity, even with those with whom we vehemently disagree? How do we engage with the promise of democracy and the American Dream? Who does it serve and who is left out? How can we pursue a just, joyful, and liberated society?”
On Tuesday, May 12, at 7 p.m., a panel of artists/activists will explore “Songwriting as Radical Imagination; An Activist Songbook Discussion.” Key among them will be “Activist Songbook” composer Byron Au Yong and lyricist Aaron Jafferis as a panel of New Haven activists and nationally recognized organizers including Kit Yan & Melissa Li, co-creators of Interstate, discuss how music can be a tool to effect change at every level of our democracy.
On Wednesday, May 13, at 7 p.m., “Stephanie Burt in Conversation” will serve as kick-off for the annual NEA Big Read with poet Burt in conversation about her book “Advice From The Lights” (Graywolf Press, 2017). Burt is also a literary critic and professor whose other collections of poems include “Belmont” and “Parallel Play.” (Each year, the New Haven Free Public Library curates a collection of books, movies, music, and other media that reflect the diversity of Arts & Ideas programming, including titles relating to this year’s NEA Big Read book by Burt.)
On May 19 at 7 p.m., the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World,” Time Editor-at-Large Anand Giridharadas, will be featured in the discussion “Wealth in Our Democracy.” In his book, Giridharadas asks hard questions: Why, for example, should our gravest problems be solved by the unelected upper crust instead of the public institutions it erodes by lobbying and dodging taxes? He also suggests an answer: Rather than rely on scraps from the winners, we must take on the grueling democratic work of building more robust, egalitarian institutions and truly changing the world. Giridharadas’ others books include “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas” and “India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking.”
And on May 26 at 7 p.m. will be the Ideas event “Cultivating Hope: The Role of Artists in Democracy,” in which 2012 Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco is joined by Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse and Founder of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC and New Haven native Katy Rubin, who reflect on their roles as mediators and responders during times of great social challenge.
Other events will be online in June, including the first of several in the “Constitution Cafe Series,” starting June 3 at 5 p.m. with “The Role of Government During Pandemic.”