Socially conscious and politically active art takes center stage this summer in Aspen |

Socially conscious and politically active art takes center stage this summer in Aspen

by Andrew Travers
Rows of red theater seats
Getty Images | Digital Vision

A year ago, the Aspen Music Festival and School’s season opened with a call to action from Los Angeles Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda, who at convocation charged students to instigate “a new era of musician activism.”

Throughout the tumultuous summer of 2016, Aspen’s young music students followed through and harnessed their talents to take action. Most prominently, they organized concerts responding to the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Music School leadership, while remaining nonpartisan, encouraged this political engagement and student-run musical activism.

“We, as a festival, took the position that this is an excellent endeavor for our students,” explains festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher. “On whatever political note, the idea that classical musicians believe they have social importance and believe they have social impact is a great one. We want to support that.”

From the Music Fest’s vaunted concert halls to the stages and screens and galleries across this remote mountain town, the eclectic 2017 summer season ahead brings socially conscious artists and works that confront and reflect the unrest and anger of the early Trump era, seeking to confront and question, hoping to unite a divided nation and a troubled world.

“It was not only an opportunity but a calling to imbue into this new festival a message that was reflective of these interesting times. We’re living in a society — and it’s not just American — where it is is very polarized, very us versus them, American citizen versus immigrant, self versus other.” – Garrett Chau,producer, Bluebird Art + Sounds

“I’ve heard people say, ‘People come to Aspen to escape,’ ‘They want to play,’ ‘They want to party,’ ‘They want to forget about what’s happening out there in the world,’” says Aspen Fringe Festival founder David Ledingham. “What does that mean? That we’re not supposed to be a part of the world? What about the Aspen Idea? That’s what Aspen was founded on.”

Fringe Fest kicks off the summer culture season with a lineup that includes Ledingham himself directly tackling the Trump question. He’ll perform an adaptation of Mike Daisey’s satirical one-man show “The Trump Card,” examining the president and the society that elected him. It shares a bill June 10 and 11 with the premiere of Penelope Skinner’s “Angry Alan.” Performed by Donald Sage Mackay, the new play examines the so-called “men’s rights movement” and the insidious spread of misogyny in the U.S. through online forums. The festival closes with a reading of Skinner’s feminist drama “Linda.”

“We felt like we needed to embrace where this country is and do an interrogation into what that means, because there’s a lot at stake,” Ledingham says.

The producers of the upstart Bluebird Art + Sound, which has its inaugural festival of concerts and visual art installations in Snowmass Village on June 30 to July 2, used social relevance as a starting point for their programming.

“It was not only an opportunity but a calling to imbue into this new festival a message that was reflective of these interesting times,” producer Garrett Chau explains. “We’re living in a society — and it’s not just America — where it is very polarized, very us versus them, American citizen versus immigrant, self versus other.”

Chau and his team built the festival around the theme “Us,” aiming to unite through art. They booked Drive-By Truckers to headline, on the strength of its 2016 “American Band” album that infuses southern rock with a fierce call for inclusion and equality. Curator Emma Gray has planned interactive art installations aimed at transcending people’s differences.

“We want to be relevant socially, but we’re not trying to get up on a soap box,” says Chau. “It’s not pro-Trump or anti-Trump. It’s about examining those issues in a provocative way and creating civilized discourse.”

The Aspen Institute’s arts program has for years been promoting the idea of the “citizen artist” by infusing the arts into the think tank’s varied policy programs and initiatives. This summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival includes a production of the new Trump-themed play “Building the Wall” by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan (June 27) and an entire track of events at the festival themed “The Art of Change” (June 25-28). Art with a societal impact has had an increasingly prominent place in the Institute’s public programming.

“It was my goal, the first day I was privileged to come to the Institute, not just to be someone showcasing art and the arts, but actually integrating the arts into larger frameworks,” said Damien Woetzel, who has run the Institute’s arts program since 2011. “The Institute has been utterly welcoming of that idea, because it fits. It’s truly part of the DNA of the place.”

American Renewable Energy Day (AREDAY) — the annual environmental summit — has taken a similar approach through the years, enlisting artists as varied as filmmaker James Cameron, actor Val Kilmer and bluesman Taj Mahal alongside bold-faced names from science, industry and government to discuss climate solutions. Its Impact Film presentations showcase some of the best in new environmental documentaries. The 2017 edition includes free screenings of Michele Ohayon’s “Power” and Susan Kucera’s “Breath of Life” on June 23 and 24.

For its summer series, Anderson Ranch Arts Center is bringing Syrian artist Diana Al-Hadid, Pakistani artist Huma Bhabha and Iranian gallerist Leila Heller to the Snowmass Village campus to discuss the role of art in the age of the “travel ban” and Islamaphobia (Aug. 3).

The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is putting its money where its mouth is on social relevance. Aspen Words is in the midst of submissions for its inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize, which will award $35,000 to a work of fiction that tackles a vital contemporary issue.

“We’re creating a conversation that’s slightly different from other prizes,” executive director Adrienne Brodeur said when they launched the prize last year. “It’s not just, ‘What’s excellent?’ It’s ‘What’s excellent that’s also purposeful?’ ‘What do we need to be thinking about?’”

Aspen Words is taking admissions through the end of the year. At its annual Summer Words festival, novelists Ben Fountain, Chinelo Okparanta and Said Sayrafiezadeh will discuss “Literature with Impact” (June 19).

Even some of the more escapist offerings in Aspen this summer are getting socially engaged. Theatre Aspen — in a season that includes the family-friendly musical “Hairspray” and the play “Sex With Strangers” — is launching a new dialogue series that aims to ground its work in the issues of the day. Titled “Off Book,” the series will include talk-backs and dialogues about themes of the season, whether it’s body-positivity and racial segregation in “Hairspray” or intimacy in the digital age in “Sex With Strangers.” The company is also hosting a September workshop production of “The Mad Show,” a musical from the biting social satirists at Mad Magazine and Second City. Theatre Aspen interim artistic director Markus Potter sees the theater as a place to bring together a ferociously polarized society.

“Today, with what’s going on in the world, we’re hunkering deeper down in our bunkers,” Potter says. “Theater, and socially conscious theater, can break that open a few notches and help us to become more empathetic.”

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