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Article Published September 4, 2019
Peter Hawes Helps Build Excitement for Guilford Performing Arts Festival
Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

After the success of the inaugural Guilford Performing Arts Festival two years ago, the small group of volunteers who dared to dream of filling churches, community buildings, shops, and restaurants with a packed schedule of free performances by brilliant artists got to work planning the next. Now, it’s nearly time to raise the curtain on the second biennial Guilford Performing Arts Festival, coming Thursday to Sunday, Sept. 26 to 29. And my, how it’s grown.

“We have 72 acts—and I’m excited about everything,” says Peter Hawes, the festival’s vice chairman and head of programming and marketing.

A Guilford resident since 2002, Peter signed on as a board member over three years ago to work with the festival’s founding father, chairman (and past Person of the Week) William Boughton.

Since that time, the all-volunteer board has organized the festival into a formal 501-c3 non-profit organization. At guilfordperformingartsfest.org, the non-profit states its purpose is to “enliven the shoreline, showcase the area’s great talent, encourage the creation of new work by Connecticut artists, contribute to the local economy, foster cultural diversity, illuminate social causes, build an audience for live performance, and provoke thought.”

“William has been providing great leadership of the festival, making sure we stay true to vision, true to budget, [and] true to our aspiration for quality and innovation and diversity; stay committed to education and human service; that we remain realistic in what we bite off; and most of all, has been our fundraiser extraordinaire,” says Peter.

Finding a Center

Boughton founded the internationally acclaimed English Symphony Orchestra (ESO) in 1980, then successfully launched the first ESO Elgar Festival in Malvern and Worcester, England. He moved to Guilford in 2007 to begin tenure as the 10th music director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.

Boughton’s vision for the inaugural Guilford Performing Arts Festival in 2017 brought 50 world-class artists, notable performers, and budding local talent to engage the community during a four-day, multi-venue festival celebrating the rich diversity of the performing arts.

The 10-member board has worked to help the festival evolve, and not only by bringing in more artists. In addition to fanning out into more than 20 venues (both around the green and at other Guilford locales), the entire event will be “knit together” by a festival main tent situated on the Guilford Green, Peter notes.

“I attended probably half a dozen events in 2017, and what felt cool was, if I stood at the corner [of Whitfield and Water Streets], I could hear a cabaret show going on in the Christian Science [Reading Room], and there was a rock concert going on at Arthur Murray [Dance Studios], and a third thing going on...and I could sort of hear those all happening. And I thought, ‘That’s really cool, but what can we do to knit it together? Can we put a tent mainstage on the Guilford Green, to serve as the center of the spiral that sucks people to the green to find out what’s going on, then sends them out to churches, the book store, the community center?’”

Now, with the blessing of the town, from Sept. 26 to 29, that tent will be centered on the green as a festival focal point.

All attendees are encouraged to make it their first stop, where they can pick up a festival program, venue map, and wristband. While there will be no tickets or admission charges for any festival performances, the wristbands will help determine total attendance—and also identify attendees for discounts and other festival benefits offered by some local restaurateurs and business owners. At venues, attendees are also strongly encouraged to make a free-will donation to support their performers.

On Sept. 26, the board of the Guilford Performing Arts Festival will host a special dinner and night of music for patrons and special guests under the festival tent on the Guilford Green. As of press time, the ticketed, fundraising event was at capacity.

“I’m excited that the town has enabled us to put what I believe is the first-ever dinner on the green in a tent on the green to help raise funds to put this festival on,” says Peter. “But what also feels good to me, in conjunction with that, is the Guilford Green is the place where the community’s had its center for centuries. There’s a center of energy there, and we wanted to leverage that.”

Art Changing Lives

This time around, the festival will also add a community service component to its commitment to bringing the community closer to the arts, says Peter.

During the process of developing into a formal non-profit, the board asked, “‘What are we putting on and why? What are the things we want to make happen, and what do we do to make those happen?’” says Peter. “We said, ‘Well, in addition to putting on a show—a great show—and bringing the community together and building energy, let’s provide a strong educational component. So as long as we have a bunch of artists here who are really unique and diverse, let’s have them teach the kids something.’ And because [the] board believes the arts are not just for entertainment but they can change lives, let’s see if we can build a sort of ‘art changes lives’ component to it, as well.

“So the next thing we knew, we had this sort of three-headed, beautiful animal that has entertainment education and public service built into it,” he continues. “And so the way the public service piece is going to work this time around is one of our marquee acts, Pilobolus—they’re coming into town basically for a weeks’ residency.”

Both Peter and Boughton reached out to their connections to help bring in Pilobolus. Founded at Dartmouth College 1971, the uncanny dance company (now based out of Washington, Connecticut) is known worldwide for its rebellious spirit; expressive, innovative theatrical dance; and improbable costumery.

Over the course of his career, Peter has worked as a journalist for the Associated Press, a corporate communications/public relations/executive speech writer (including writing speeches for a top Xerox executive); ran marketing for American saxophonist Paul Winter’s independent record label, and launched his own communications consulting company.

“So I knew Pilobolus from a previous life,” says Peter, “and William had also heard of them, and so we went through our contacts. They happen to have a teaching arm called Pilobolus@Play. So the fit was good, and we put a budget around it, figured out fundraising, and got support.”

As a festival press release notes, “Shoreline Ballet is a major sponsor of Pilobolus’s involvement in the festival, and the Guilford Fund for Education has generously supported this and other educational and community outreach elements of the festival. The Guilford Foundation, Connecticut Humanities Council, and Community Foundation for Greater New Haven have also lent crucial support to enable the festival to bring Pilobolus to Guilford.”

Pilobolus@Play is anticipated to lead nine classes with Guilford High School’s (GHS) theater arts program, offer free classes to the public at Shoreline Ballet, and work with seniors at Evergreen Woods and with Legacy Theatre’s Wheel Life Theater Troupe (described by Legacy as being “for those who ambulate with crutches or use wheelchairs and [also for] their siblings”). This one small piece of the festival carries a very large component of its spirit, Peter adds.

“We recognize whoever you are, whatever challenges you face, whatever direction you want to go, the arts are a way of connecting with yourself, connecting you with others, and providing a forum for feeling, seeing, experiencing the world in a different way,” he says.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m., Pilobolus will give a full-company, public performance of Come to Your Senses, a multisensory dance experience featuring the company’s new creation, Eye Opening, at the GHS Performing Arts Center. The show is free, but attendance is limited and requires advance online registration through a link available at guilfordperformingartsfest.org.

From Classical to Circus Act

While the Pilobolus performance is no doubt a centerpiece of the festival, other incredible performances from genres across the performing arts spectrum will abound over four days and nights. Musical performers span classical, jazz, big band, blues, folk, bluegrass, country, rock, gospel, opera, choral, swing, hip hop, and world music. Dance performances range from ballet to contemporary dance. The festival will present dramatic theater, Broadway and cabaret performances as well as spoken word (poetry and story-telling). There are even circus acts and buskers in the mix.

In another effort to join professional artists with the community, the United States Coast Guard Band, one of America’s premier military concert bands, will perform on Sunday, Sept. 29, 3 p.m. at the GHS Performing Arts Center, including a side-by-side performance with the GHS Wind Ensemble. Tickets are free but advance online registration is required (link at guilfordperformingartsfest.org).

Beyond bringing opportunities for students to work with premiere festival artists, other interactive opportunities will be offered for the public to experience at several venues during the festival, says Peter.

“In the western culture especially, it seems the artist is over here, and our job is to observe. So it’s really important for us to say, ‘Wait a minute, why not remove that space?’ There is room for high degrees of mastery, but doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel so shy that you shouldn’t jump in. So with the festival, we’re trying to do a bit of that, by bringing people like Pilobolus and the Coast Guard Band and Legacy Theatre and [teaching artists] Angela Clemmons and Afro Bop Alliance into the schools; to teach them things that the schools are already teaching, but also bring them to a space that they haven’t thought of, or wouldn’t be exposed to,” he says.

“Also, we’ve got six or seven interactive events as part of the festival, from a drumming [circle] and music improvisation workshop to a musician’s jam to improvisational theater to interactive story-telling,” he adds. “So there’s a lot of stuff that’s intended to say, ‘Come a little bit closer to the performing stage, and see what you can do.’ We kind of think, as long as we have these great artists here, let’s see if we can change a few lives in the process.”

With its roots stepped in providing what Peter describes as “a celebration of American arts and culture,” the festival is being marketed beyond the borders of Guilford and Connecticut. The hope is to build a diverse audience as the community comes together, and create another economic generator for Guilford.

“We’ve got performers coming in from [areas including] Boston, the Hudson Valley, and New York City, and they’re reaching out to their audiences and on their social media; together with the outreach we’re doing in marketing,” he says. “We’re kind of hoping we’ll have people who come from further away to spend the day, or spend a half day or spend a weekend in Guilford, and check out all this stuff.”

He adds, “the festival has crystalized in Guilford, and we see it as a Guilford-centric event, [but] we intend it to be a community- and economic building engine for Guilford; to bring diverse segments of the population together and to contribute something, we hope, by bringing people in from out of town.”

Of course, the festival could not come together without the support of the many individuals, foundations, organizations, groups, businesses, and sponsors who have contributed to help make it happen.

“At the end of the day, I hope we can prove that this was done with quality, done with professionalism, done with heart, and that we will have done right by the people who showed their faith and put their money and time and energy on the line,” says Peter.

Guilford Performing Arts Festival presents more than 70 live, free performances at more than 20 venues from Thursday to Sunday, Sept. 26 to 29, 2019. The festival’s full schedule of performers, dates, times, and locations and much more information appears at guilfordperformingartsfest.org.