Every year, New Haven explodes with every form of art and generation of ideas for the two week International Festival of Arts & Ideas. I’ve not been able to jump in until now, but my menu selections range from contemporary dance to walking tours to unusual therapy to performance theater works to aesthetic acrobatics.
“Arguendo,” performed by Elevator Repair Service, arguably has an audience-pleasing premise: the Supreme Court’s weighs in on whether nude dancers, as in adult entertainers, are protected by the First Amendment. Lifted from transcripts of the actual proceedings and montaged in a quasi dance-performance piece, the structure seemed promising. But other than a manic five minutes (in which the attorney defending the dancers’ First Amendment rights argues his points in the nude, while justices toss papers gleefully overhead, all talking at once), I found the production surprisingly dull. There’s a reason I’m not an attorney.
Celebrating a gloriously pleasant Friday afternoon with members of the Hamden Walks meet-up group and about 100 other people, my first walking tour strolled along classy St. Ronan Street with an architectural historian from The New Haven Preservation Trust. Built mostly during the Industrial Golden Age for New Haven between 1890 and 1920, there’s nothing cookie cutter about the grandeur. Each house is quirkily different, gently breaking architectural style rules. The street has a coherence though. A repeated motif of diamond-shaped windows, regular set-backs from the street, and consistent distance between each neighbor creates a pleasing harmony and peaceable splendor.
St. Ronan refers to a well or spring in a Sir Walter Scott poem, and the Hillhouse family who developed the street from their farm and estate referenced that Romantic work with the picturesque homes. You have your 1903 12,000 foot cottage, not so different from not so far away Newport.
And next door is this storybook house a third the size. The house originally belonged to the women’s rights activist Agusta Troup, who along with her wealthy husband, was also a union activist. Ironic advocacy for the uber wealthy.
Notice the funny mix of window styles, the emphatic asymmetry. Very playful and fun.
And what street would be complete without its mid-century modern? Here it belongs to the widow of a former Yale President.
The houses and stories go on and on, but like me, you are probably ready to pause and refresh. You might want to head to the festival of food trucks in Hamden town center. I did! Along with the throngs mobbing about 25 different food vendors in the park adjacent to the library. Two cupcake trucks had long lines. This menu board might explain why.
A whole new day, and more adventures with Arts & Ideas. It’s summer, officially, and the longest day of the year! So an eleven hour day of activity began with a hike up East Rock, that odd geological monument that serves as a marker and icon of New Haven. East Rock and West Rock are volcanic cliffs caused by plate shifts and molten lava that cooled on the exposed face. Weird vertical thrusts from the gentle hills of the area.
That geological phenomena created a sheer face of trap, or basalt volcanic rock. The trap is so hard it has served as a building block, as seen on this house on St. Ronan Street. Unlike the also local brownstone, which is soft and subject to erosion, trap is used in asphalt for durable support for intense weights or for building for the ages.
East Rock Park was designed from 1882 to 1895 by Donald Grant Mitchell, a 19th-century pop literature author who took up scientific farming and landscape design. Interesting combination. This natural arch occurs right by a manmade bridge designed by Mitchell. He also created the paths, walkways, trails, and planting schema.
No matter what you see here, the earliest paintings of East Rock showed bare rock with no trees, so that the sandstone strata at the base was visible. We just don’t use as much wood as they did for 19th-century fireplaces, so now New England is forested in a way it wasn’t then.
Diane Reeves, with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, performed on the Green, closing off a great day. But the real highlight for me was Bibliotherapy.
Bibliotherapy (for adults) is the brainchild of Susan Elderkin, who has moved from England to Hamden, my home town. In her book The Novel Cure and the workshop today, she explained how we can be healed by a book, instead of with drugs. Right on, sister!
To get started, she and her best friend and co-author Ella Berthoud parked a vintage ambulance in a field in Suffolk, England and put out a blackboard with appointment times. Then they started dispensing prescriptions of books to read.
They had developed the practice on each other, addressing wallowing and romantic problems and I-hate-men moods, etc. Susan explained that fiction doesn’t tell us what to do, but instead shows up by example (or dis-example), leaving us to decide how to proceed on our own. She said, we could read self-help which tells us what to do–Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway— or read To Kill a Mockingbird. You get the idea.
You know that feeling of being transported by a book. Well, Susan studied how the brain works, so that being transported leads to transformation. She articulated that when we read, we hear a narrative voice that displaces our own. We “cease to be,” we “become the story.” Reading is similar to actually doing something about the issue. It is an “alternative form of living” that creates a vivid, shared intimacy with the book. The book and its world keeps us from being alone with our issue, even if the plot line is wildly different from our own.
Susan says that recommending a book is “almost as good as writing it.” She called for us to read so we can “give the gift of recommending,” which brought tears to my eyes. When she called for a volunteer, guess who forced her way onstage? Yep.
Through a prescribed set of questions, Susan got to know my reading habits and preferences. Then I stated my issue simply. Even though I’m “following my bliss,” “doing what I love,” I’m still waiting for the “money to follow.” Susan tenderly probed, and then she filled out a literal prescription for me to read: Stoner by John Williams and to re-read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett and Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. I can hardly wait to see how my world might change through this focused reading.
But first, there’s more Arts & Ideas. Tomorrow brings a rose garden, a Split Knuckle Theatre performance piece called “Endurance” that is a mash-up of office politics and the Shackleton voyage-disaster, and a tour of a 100 year old shul. And then there’s more and more as the week progresses…not a dull art or idea in sight!