Arts festival planned for Philadelphia

January 02, 1994|By Leonard W. Boasberg | Leonard W. Boasberg,Knight-Ridder News Service

Following up a campaign pledge, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell has launched plans for a Spoleto-like international festival of the arts to be held annually in Philadelphia, but the details -- such as when, how long, how big, exactly what -- are still to be worked out.

"We're still in the planning stages -- intensive planning, but planning," Mr. Rendell says.

Current planning aims at September-October 1995 as the date for the first festival, but Mr. Rendell cautions that the festival might have to be delayed until the following year, depending mostly on how much money is available.

Among other undetermined details is how similar to the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, as it is tentatively called, will be.

The two-week Spoleto Festival U.S.A. has been held in Charleston, S.C., every spring since 1977, when composer Gian Carlo Menotti began it. He modeled it after the Festival of Two Worlds that he'd launched in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958, bringing in 100 or more events -- music, dance, theater and visual arts.

Given Philadelphia's artistic and cultural resources, Mr. Rendell says, "We believe we can be stronger than Spoleto because whereas Spoleto imports nearly all its talent, we'll have a balance between home-grown and imported artists and events."

Not just for art's sake

Art for art's sake is, of course, not the only thing the mayor has in mind. He expects that the festival, plus the Avenue of the Arts on South Broad Street, plus the new Convention Center, will be a "tremendous spur" to tourism, he says.

The major planning is being done by NetworkArts Philadelphia, a nonprofit corporation created last spring to produce the festival and other cultural projects and headed by Josie Stamm.

Among other things, Ms. Stamm envisages: the American premiere of a new work by the avant-garde Lyon Opera Ballet of France; partnership with the Philadelphia-based American Music Theater Festival to create a major new opera on an American theme, and a several-day celebration of the late Philadelphia jazzman John Coltrane, bringing in a number of major jazz figures who worked with him.

NetworkArts already has commissioned poet Sonia Sanchez to write and read a poem to be sung in part by the a capella choir Sweet Honey in the Rock, led by MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant-winner Bernice Reagon, with music played by tenor sax-man Odean Pope and drummer Max Roach and choreography by Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater.

It also has commissioned the Institute of Contemporary Art to curate the "Walnut Street Project" -- 20 or more temporary installations, centering on historic, cultural, religious and commercial sites, to be created by artists from Philadelphia and around the world, along Walnut Street from Penn's Landing to 36th Street, where the institute is located.

It has chosen three theater groups, out of 14, to produce works to be included in the festival:

* InterAct Theater Company, to present the premiere of "Black Russian," a play by its playwright-in-residence Thomas Gibbons.

* The People's Light and Theater Company, to produce its own version of "The Iliad."

* The Philadelphia Drama Guild, to produce Bertolt Brecht's "Galileo."

The groups were chosen by a three-member jury consisting of Nigel Redden, director of the Santa Fe Opera; Liz Thompson, former artistic director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, now president of Boston First Night, and theater critic Toby Zinman, a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

Opera premiere

In coordination with the festival, the Opera Company of Philadelphia plans to stage the world premiere of a six-character, one-act opera by the young composer Christopher Drobny. The opera is titled "Kissing and Horrid Strife," from a line in a poem by D. H. Lawrence.

NetworkArts executive director Stamm was producing director of Philadelphia's 1991 Festival Mythos, the seven-week "celebration of multicultural mythologies in the arts" co-sponsored by the University of the Arts and the Native Land Foundation. She is working with Diane Dalto, deputy city director for arts and culture, and has assembled a 30-member artistic advisory board.

"Mythos," she says, "was a grand experiment, and it worked, but what we're planning is not a successor to Mythos, although we're keeping its city-wide collaborative aspect, but something new -- a festival that will highlight Philadelphia as an exciting cultural destination."

She says she intends to include not only the city's neighborhoods but also the entire Philadelphia region. So far, about 50 arts organizations have said they will participate.

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