New Haven's International Arts Festival: What's Hot This Year?

It's about sharing the experience.

That's what Mary Lou Aleski, executive director of New Haven's 18th annual International Festival of Arts & Ideas that begins Saturday, June 15, has found in data of who comes — and why— to the annual two-week festival of arts, entertainment and interactive events held at indoor and outdoor venues throughout the walkable city.

Aleskie says an increasing number of people are bringing their friends and family as a group to attend the dozens of ticketed and free theater, dance, music, film and visual arts events.

"It's a very social experience," says Aleskie who is heading her eighth festival. "We love that people are so enthusiastic about the festival they want to return come to share in the experience with others."

It's also an inter-active experience, she says, with many events that provoke discussion, stimulate ideas and invite participation, especially for families, with close-up connections with the artists that range from meet-and-greets to panel discussions to master classes. She says the attractions are geared to attract multi-generations of audiences with acts with distinction from around the world . this year many oif the artists come from England, Canada, Peru, France, Italy, India, Poland and Ethiopia.

So what are acts are getting most of the pre-festival buzz?

Aleskie immediately points to "A Midsummer Night's Dream,' a show produced by England's Bristol Old Vic, and the first collaboration by the director and puppeteers of the international hit "War Horse." The show premiered in England in March and had it's U.S. bow last month at Spoleto Festival USA in South Carolina. The New Haven engagement is the only other gig in North America for the show this year.

"We like to be involved with high-profile and national and international theater projects,' she says. "New Haven is a place that is about invention and innovation and this puppetry look at 'Midsummer's Night Dream' made it seem like it belonged in our community."

Another cutting edge presentation is the East Coast premiere of "Stuck Elevator," "a comic-rap-scrap-metal musical" based on a true-life experience of a Chinese deliveryman trapped in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours.

The show, with music by Byron Au Yong and libretto by new Haven native Aaron Jafferis, was developed by Yale Institute for Music Theatre in a showcase reading during the festival in 2010.

"It was so powerful and compelling," says Aleskie "It's like most things that we look for in theater at the festival: Strong content. Strong themes. Strong ideas. This was a very timely piece that deals with immigration reform, something that resonates here in our community, too. Even if it didn't involve Aaron, it would be something we would be doing."

What else?

"Aaron [Neville], for sure," she says, referring to the Grammy-winning soul and R&B singer who opens up the series of free concerts on the New Haven Green on Saturday,

Then there's "Sequence 8," the new human-scale cirque show by Canada's Les 7 doigts de la main, which also created "Traces."(which played the Bushnell two years ago). The group is also responsible for the cirque acts in Broadway's "Pippin" which Sunday night won a Tony Award for outstanding musical revival.

Another must-see for many is the Kronos Quartet, which is presenting a landmark performance in New Haven, not only celebrating its 40th year with special guest Chinese pipa player Wu Man as well as welcoming its new member, cellist Sunny Jungin Yang.

Of course there's the appearance by filmmaker Spike Lee who will give some star appeal to the "ideas" section of the festival's lineup. Lee will present an advance screening of "Bad 25," his documentary of Michael Jackson working on his 1987 solo album, "Bad."

Also getting advance notice, says Aeskie, is jazz bassist Christian McBride coming to town with his jazz quintet Inside Straight, which includes pianist Christian Sands, a New Haven native who grew up and trained locally before launching his own career.

What also makes this year's festival even more special for that "shared experience' is the opening last December of the renovated and expanded Yale University Art Gallery, one that received national and international raves. The free gallery is sure to be a "value-added" element of any festival going, says Aleskie.

"It's phenomenal so why wouldn't we highlight such a tremendous asset," she says. The festival added curated-led tours of the gallery to accommodate the increase in arts lovers to town.

Aleskie acknowledges that because of financially tight time the festival has increased the number of ticketed events to build its revenue, as well as added "premium ticket pricing" of $250 for two passes for the free Green shows that allows special access and perks. Bleacher seats at $10 will also be available for the free green shows for better viewing. Chair rentals at $10 also is a way to add a revenue steam to the coffers.