Arts & ideas: some quiet quibbles

I’m such a lover of balanced commentary and critical credibility that–having been roundly knocked out by the fantastic efforts of Taylor Mac, Dan Zanes, Ragamala dance company and Mark Morrison at the festival thus far—I feel the need to itemize a small list of downsides just so nobody thinks I’ve been lobotomized or something.

• A paper shortage. It’s been hard to find Arts & Ideas schedules/brochures at the info tent when you really need them. And on the first night of Acis & Galatea at the Shubert, the program inserts about the show itself were in scarce supply. Fortunately, the man sitting next to me didn’t need his, or I wouldn’t have had anything to scribble notes (or keep track of the performers’ names) on. Can’t tell the opera singers without a scorecard.

• The new backstage VIP hangout area next to the main bandstand on the Green. Up until now it was a big tent with food and drink in it, and a few tables to sit at. this year it is a big white platform that resembles the outdoor deck at a party bar. It’s got a big bar area and mood lighting. In some ways it is more impressive than the stage area. I don’t like the suggestion here that it’s better to be off the grass than on it. This is the Town Green after all.

• Better questions please! There’s a game in the Info Tent where you answer a question about the festival, spin a wheel and win a prize (probably a ball point pen, but maybe something better like sunglasses). I thought I’d be good at this, since I’ve been covering Arts & Ideas as a journalist and critic for 20 years. But the question I got was so poorly composed that I had no idea what it meant. I asked for another one, and it was a multiple choice question about festival demographics. You didn’t have to get the question right to spin the wheel (I won a pen), but it’s the principle of the thing.

• Long Wharf seems too far away. I used to walk to that area from downtown every day for over a decade (to work at the New Haven Advocate), but in festival terms it seems a world away from the New Haven Green, Shubert and Yale theaters where almost all the other Arts & Ideas happen. On Friday night, for instance, it took some resolve to pick myself up off the Green after a wonderful concert by the jazz combo Epitome and head out to Long Wharf for Roger Gueveur Smith’s Rodney King show. I suspect this may have affected turnout for the shows which the festival placed at Long Wharf. That Rodney King performance (second of two) had under 120 people at it (in the main 400-seat auditorium), and the Sunday matinee I attended there of 600 Highwaymen’s Employee of the Year didn’t have that many more. The venue was ideal for both shows, but so would’ve been the Iseman Theatre on Chapel or maybe the Co-op or ECA school spaces. I won’t pretend to know what Arts & Ideas went through to determine what went where—I know this is a difficult process—but both Rodney King and Employee of the Year deserved larger audiences last weekend and I hope location wasn’t a big factor. (Employee of the Year has more performances June 26 & 27; make the effort.)

These really are low-key quibbles, aren’t they? This would be a good place to say that I hear all the big common complaints about the festival at large, and don’t buy them.
Too expensive? Nearly all the ticketed events cost less here than they have at other theaters they’ve played at. The ones that are world premieres are reasonably priced for what they are–fully produced shows with very limited runs in really nice venues.
Too snooty? Seriously? When the first three big festival events are a gallery exhibit in honor of Frank Sinatra, New York drag icon Taylor Mac singing songs of radical lesbian acts of the 1990s (like Bitch and Animal’s “Pushy Manifesto”) and Darlene Love on New Haven Green?! Everything I’ve seen at this year’s festival has been crazy accessible, even–especially!–Mark Morris’ production of Acis and Galatea, one of those rare operas that makes you laugh out loud and feel good about the world.
Too much trouble? This is my first festival as an out of towner, having moved to Bethany last year after 30 years of living in downtown New Haven. I’ve driven into the city every day of the festival, had no trouble parking, and haven’t felt any inclination to not bother. Once you’re at the festival, it takes care of you. There are continual events and distractions to keep you busy for as long as you happen to be around. My whole family is as diehard as I am about this.

Five more days of Arts & Ideas 2015 to go. See you there.