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Why all the shows in the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity are raising funds for various charities
"This is the most important moment for art that we've had in the last 50 years," says Shaun Peknic, the newly minted artistic director of Planet Connections Theatre Festivity (PCTF). Fittingly, the 10th edition of this summer festival features 50 offerings that touch on a wide variety of timely topics. Director-playwright Glory Kadigan launched the fest in 2009 hoping to "invoke the power of art in motivating philanthropy, community outreach and social change." Given the current polarized state of our society and the grassroots activism it's inspiring, PCTF's mission seems more urgent than ever.
Kadigan, who continues to serve as PCTF's associate producer, met Peknic while the two were participating in the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. She invited him to take over the fest's artistic reins this year. Peknic, whose directorial credits include past PCTF shows plus a stint as an associate director for Once on Broadway, was thrilled to come on board. "Planet Connections is by far my favorite theatre festival in New York because of the community," he says. "It is a group of artists that tend to share in each other's work and who return year after year, which is unique in my experience. It's using art for what art is meant to be used for: to enact social change and have a conversation about what's going on in the world."
The four-week fest, which just kicked off on Monday at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, will present 35 full-fledged productions and 15 staged readings from around the globe, including the U.S., Japan, Yugoslavia, Russia, Peru, France, Belarus and Haiti. Impressively, about two-thirds of these offerings involve returning artists.
They also all put their money with their mountings are by supporting a wide range of charities selected by the shows' creators. For example, Mark Jason Williams' A Man's Man (July 31) confronts stereotypes about toxic masculinity and benefits the NYC Anti-Violence Project. Magaly Colimon's The Hunting Season (July 16-August 4) chronicles a Haitian mother's desperate measures to save her son from violence and supports The Lambi Fund of Haiti. Kelley Nicole Girod's This Stretch of Montpelier (July 19-August 5), set in a gentrifying South Louisiana neighborhood, benefits the Gulf Restoration Network.
Casey Wimpee's history-inspired The Brutes (July 18-August 1), about an 1864 performance of Julius Caesar starring slavery supporter and future Abraham Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth alongside his two brothers, supports the Southern Poverty Law Center. Erika Phoebus' Rusalka (July 12-31) also draws on history with its narrative about two sisters who fraternize with Nazis at an underground bar in 1943 Amsterdam. The show is donating to Women for Women International.
Rusalka actually began in a writers group sponsored by Planet Connections. "I'm a very lucky playwright to have gotten this kind of support while shaping this wild little tale of resistance," Phoebus says. "They care about their artists, and they build community. It's a very special festival to be a part of."
In addition to its fundraising, PCTF also stands out from the rest of the culture crowd as the country's first eco-friendly arts festival, with all participants utilizing green marketing and promotion tactics and sustainable design practices. "That's something that I am very proud of, creating art that is responsible to the planet," Peknic says. "We make sure that the shows are using recyclable materials and do not create a lot of waste."
Sara Fellini, who directs The Brutes, enjoyed implementing the fest's environmentally conscious philosophy. "One of our set pieces is 90% reconstituted material, as we built an old-fashioned steamer trunk out of a discarded amp," she says. "From the way the playbills are handled to the materials that are used in our shows, these challenges bring out greater creativity in artists."
Of course, the fest isn't all high-minded -- it aims to entertain, too, and on the cheap. As of this writing, $9 tickets are available to many shows via TDF's Off-Off and Beyond, which anyone can sign up for. So get out of the heat, see some innovative and inexpensive theatre, and give to charity, all in one go.
Planet Connections Theatre Festivity runs July 9 to August 5. Find the complete lineup at planetconnections.org.
Top image: Geany Masai and Donovan Christie Jr. in This Stretch of Montpelier. Photo by Andrew Block.