There’s a palpable shift in downtown New Haven’s energy each June. For two weeks every year, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas takes over the Green and nearby performance spaces, bringing an undeniable buzz with it.
As co-executive director and managing director of the festival, Elizabeth Fisher strives to bring acclaimed performances from around the globe to the Elm City – and it’s a job she cherishes. She has worked at the festival since 1998, just two years after it was founded, and has seen it grow from a long-weekend experiment to a 14-day spectacle that this year will take place June 9-23.
Fisher oversees the event with fellow co-executive directors Tom Griggs and Chad Herzog, and the help of 220 paid workers and about 350 festival volunteers. Each year, the festival draws roughly 100,000 people from throughout the state and the world to the Elm City.
Recently in the festival’s downtown office, Fisher, whose professional background is as a circus manager, took some time out of a busy morning to talk about why she loves exposing the world to New Haven, and vice versa.
Q: When it’s not festival season, what is your favorite way to spend a day in New Haven?
A: My husband is at the Shubert Theatre so I see a lot of shows [Fisher is married to John Fisher, the Shubert’s executive director]. I love to go to the Shubert; it’s a grand theater.
John and I love to kayak, so we really like the parks in New Haven and the waterways. I love East Rock and West Rock in the fall when the leaves are turning. We were lucky to land here [in New Haven]; we could’ve have ended up anywhere, really.
Q: When out-of-town friends or family visit, what tops your must-see list for them?
A: I send everyone to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. I just think it’s so beautiful, and it’s just not something you’re going to see anywhere else. People don’t realize it’s free. It’s open to the public and there’s always cool stuff on display that they can look at. And those glowing marble walls – it’s just extraordinary.
Q: When you talk to festival performers, who come from around the globe, what are their impressions of New Haven?
A: What we hear from artists all the time – I mean all the time – is, “This is the best gig I’ve ever had.” People love to come here, and they love to come back here. I don’t think people realize what a charming little city it is. There is so much here. The restaurants are incredible. The town is walkable and pretty and nice. We hear really positive things.
Q: Where is your favorite local place to grab a meal?
A: We love ZINC and Kitchen ZINC. The food there is great and the service is terrific. We go to Temple Grill because we love to sit outside when the weather’s nice – and it’s close to the [Shubert] theater.
Q: What are your hobbies?
A: I make stained-glass windows and I love to build miniatures. I like working with my hands, and I’m sort of crafty. I love working with glass and wood and those kinds of materials. The reason I love glass is it’s so fragile and breakable but, left to its own devices, it’ll still be here in 300 years. It’s this weird combination of vulnerability and a kind of permanence.
Q: What are some aspects of the festival you’re most excited for this year?
A: I am super-excited about getting back outside into the courtyards. We’re presenting a ticketed event in the Yale courtyard, we’re doing “The Merchant of Venice.” We used to do a concert series in the courtyard every year, and I really miss that. [Weather has prevented courtyard performances from happening in recent years.] They are really breathtaking spaces that most people don’t get to go to. It opens up this world of Yale that most people don’t get to see. When the real lighting design is by nature, it’s really cool. We haven’t been in the courtyards in years.
Street performance is really dear to my heart. It’s where I really first discovered the performing arts, as a kid in Harvard Square. We have some street performances happening on the Green this year that I think are going be really fabulous. And I always love our outdoor concerts.
For more information about the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, including a full schedule and tickets, visit artidea.org. Most festival events are free of charge.
Photography by Tony Bacewicz.