"This year, undoubtedly, is the biggest theater program we've done," says Festival director Paul Collard, who remembers predictions of "complete disaster" when, three years ago, the Festival presented its first major theater piece, a three-week-old play from London that no one had ever heard of. "Fortunately, it was a play called Copenhagen," Collard recalls gleefully. "It sold out. And that encouraged us to believe that this was an audience that really wanted to see theater."
The Arts part of the Arts & Ideas Festival kicks off with a Young Vic/Royal Shakespeare Company co-production of Carlo Goldoni's A Servant to Two Masters that marks the RSC's third year in New Haven. Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) has newly adapted the 18th-century Italian commedia dell'arte so the Royal Shakespeare Company can show what it can do with non-Shakespearean material. (The production was a sell-out success in both Stratford and London, in a four-week stint at the Kennedy Center, and most recently at Spoleto.) "It's a farce," says Collard. "Lots of doors to go in and out of, lots of mistaken identities--split-second timing."
While the RSC is playing light for the summer, the Abbey Theatre's new production of Brian Friel's Translations, directed by Ben Barnes, is acting as an anchor for the Festival's theater offerings, according to program director Cynthia Hedstrom. The production also has the added benefit of fitting in with this year's "Art and Conflict" theme of the Ideas portion of the Festival, which includes discussions and speakers such as Susan Sontag and former Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale).
"Again, it's a national theater," says Hedstrom. "It's top actors and Brian Friel is a brilliant contemporary playwright. And it does link to the Art and Conflict theme. The play is about a moment when the British army comes in and re-maps Ireland, Anglicizing the names of all the roads and geographical landmarks. It's really about colonizing and the effect that has on the lives of people...and, of course, there's a love story."
Two of the other major theater pieces in this year's Festival--the Taganka Theatre's Marat and Marquis de Sade and The Continuum, by a young Singaporean director working with Cambodian artists--should offer audiences something new in both the Art and Conflict departments. Both pieces are created within traditions outside the American theater by artists who have directly dealt with conflict in their home countries.
Yuri Lyubimov, the director of Marat and Marquis de Sade, makes "theater whose active purpose is to influence political process," Collard says. "He's been doing this since 1963, with such success that the Russians eventually sent him into exile." After almost 10 years, Lyubimov (now in his 70s) was able to return to Moscow to re-establish his theater company, which has only appeared once before in the U.S. "For the contemporary generation of theatergoers, this will probably be their only opportunity to see his work," Collard notes.
"Our box office tells us that the biggest challenge at the moment is dealing with non-English-speaking Russians attempting to buy tickets for Taganka," Collard continues. The performance is, after all, in Russian. "But that doesn't really matter," he insists, predicting that younger audiences will respond to the show particularly well: "It's a very lively production, with live music on stage. It's taking theater to its physical extremes, where it really is on the boundary of circus."
The Continuum: Beyond the Killing Fields is the multi-disciplinary project of Ong Keng Sen, a Singaporean director who has mixed Cambodian dance with Cambodian puppetry and Japanese music. And that's about all anyone can tell you about the actual piece; adding new meaning to the phrase "world premiere," it was still in the process of being created in Singapore three weeks before its June 27 opening in New Haven.
The Continuum's performing ensemble includes Em Theay, a master dancer of the royal classical Cambodian tradition who survived the Khmer Rouge scourge that killed 90 percent of the country's artists. The piece tells her story, working within and melding traditions from around Southeast Asia. Sen's other work includes a Lear done with traditional Japanese theater that Collard describes as "absolutely astonishing."
Part of what interests Collard is the way that Sen, with his company TheatreWorks, is "working in a completely different aesthetic tradition. It brings to audiences a range of experiences that they otherwise would never get. New Haven has a great tradition of theater with Yale Rep, Long Wharf, and the Shubert; but, on the whole, it's a fairly conservative, text-based approach that you get here. Our intention was to begin to present theater from different traditions than what you normally see in New Haven."
Another aim of the Festival is to offer something for everyone, evident in the wide appeal of last year's Saigon Water Puppets. According to Hedstrom, "We always try to program something that would be enjoyed by both children and adults, and Teatro Minimo fit that bill this year." The Italian troupe's Fantasy Sketches uses drawings by illustrator Maurice Sendak (best known for Where the Wild Things Are) as the basis for a puppet piece inspired by the life and work of Mozart.
Says Hedstrom, "I've followed Teatro Minimo's work over the last five years and, about a year ago, they said they were working on this piece with Maurice Sendak--and Maurice Sendak lives in Connecticut. So I thought, this is a great link. Let's try to make this work." Sendak will also take part in a pre-show artist-in-conversation to discuss what he calls his "doodly life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."
Besides its five international offerings, the Festival also gives support, by way of its publicity and program guides, to local theater groups that program according to Festival time. New Haven's resident regional, Long Wharf, has lined up a workshop of Obie-winner Lisa Kron's latest one-woman show, Well. The New England Academy of Theatre is presenting its own festival of short new works by New England playwrights, called Short & NEAT. And the Shubert, the old-time home of out-of-town tryouts, has Kiss Me, Kate in the first leg of its national tour.
"We try to partner with these institutions and let them have their own platform within the Festival," says Hedstrom. "We bring several hundred thousand people into New Haven. When audiences realize that these institutions have year-round programming and start to clue into that, they think about coming back on a regular basis. That's one synergy we're creating."
According to Collard, the most impressive theatrical events of the Festival might not be happening in theaters at all. "I think, if you stopped people randomly on the street and asked them what was their strongest memory of the Festival, it would almost always be a street performer that they came across," he says. "Some of the street theater we've brought here has blown people away."
[For more information, schedules, and ticketing for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, visit www.artidea.org or call 1-888-ART-IDEA.]