Convention Draws Hundreds of Artists to City

The conventional wisdom was that the city was going to clear out this week. But besides the thousands of delegates, protestors and journalists pouring into town for the Republican National Convention--writers, actors, dancers, musicians, and other artists are also seizing the moment. WNYC's Alicia Zuckerman reports.

AZ: They range from total unknowns to absolute superstars, and one of the things they have in common is that New York is their town. Even many artists who don't live here feel this way. Really during just about any given week, there are hundreds of films, concerts, plays, and exhibitions going on in the city. But this is unprecedented, says the playwright and director Josh Fox, one of the organizers of the group THAW Theaters Against War.

Josh Fox: As one of the people fielding the ideas // I heard of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of protests that are // below the radar // it's incredible. I'm just gonna walk around because I think you're gonna run into things on the street.

AZ: Almost 200 of these events are happening under the umbrella of the Imagine Festival of Arts, Issues and Ideas. Lauren Bacall, Richard Gere, and Kathleen Turner will be doing readings from the Constitution at Cooper Union.

Downtown, a big red megaphone called the Freedom of Expression National Monument is aimed directly at the courthouses. Anyone can climb up the ladder and yell anything. And it's not just Manhattan. A celebration of black and Latino freedom fighters in the Bronx is part-dance, part-poetry, and part-discussion.

The Comfort and Safety of Your Own Home, a play by Josh Fox's theater company, International WOW, begins on a tour bus, which leaves from the Lower East Side.

Tour Guide: Every day this city is reborn, up here, between the ears today we are imagining a bit of our history history is a fantasy.

AZ: The tour ends up in the company's studio just outside the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The audience sits on the floor of a bedroom while a couple watches TV and prisoners in orange jump suits mill around on the roof, just outside the window.

Military reservists burst in with guns drawn.

Fox hopes the play, will raise questions about the impact of globalization, threats of terrorism, the war in Iraq, and what he calls the exploitation of September Eleventh. He says he's worried about what will happen if President Bush wins in November, but

Fox: OK, let's say Kerry wins--does everybody go back to sleep? You know what I mean?

AZ: These are the kind of concerns that are driving so much of these events. The ideas are more complex than simply bashing President Bush, though there's certainly plenty of that, too.

The character Dickie Pillager in John Sayles' new film Silver City is based on George W. Bush when he ran for governor of Texas. But when Sayles shows clips from the film tonight at Symphony Space, he plans to raise issues that go beyond mocking the president and his environmental policies and corporate alliances. Silver City is as much about failures of the media.

Sayles: So much of what I see now on mainstream news, at its best if you have someone come on and tell the truth for 5 minutes, you have to get someone to come on and lie for 5 minutes, so that you feel balanced.

AZ: With so much politically-rooted entertainment going on this week, it's like the artists are having a convention of their own. Again, John Sayles.

Sayles: We have some real, deep reservations about the people who are gonna be crowned at this convention, so instead of walking around in the streets with placards, which has been done a million times we're gonna plow some of that energy into our art and just offer it up to everybody.

Beglarian: Simply the act of doing our work is a form of activism.

AZ: Composer Eve Beglarian co-created the music theater piece, The Forgiveness Project, about the hostility and resentment among Chinese, Japanese and Koreans that came out of World War Two.

Beglarian sees some parallels to what's happening in the world now. And she knows that sharing her ideas with people who think like she does won't do much to change the world. But, she says, getting art out there ... could.

Beglarian: One thing that comes up for me is the 9/11 commission one of the critical things they said was that the reason 9/11 could happen was because of a failure of imagination. Well artists are the experts at imagination. We're the people who inhabit the world of imagination, and we do have something to bring to the table we really do.

AZ: And to that end, Beglarian, a gay feminist composer from the left, wishes that as part of the week's activities, she could be on a panel with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Or, at the very least--that some of the delegates would spend some time with the artists this week.

For WNYC, I'm Alicia Zuckerman.