Coming soon to Little Island: An arts festival with powerful backers

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Coming soon to Little Island: An arts festival with powerful backers
Little Island, which floats over the Hudson River near West 13th Street in Hudson River Park, on the site of an old pier in New York, May 17, 2021. The mogul Barry Diller, who paid for the park, will finance a summer season of music, dance, theater and more, shaped in part by the Broadway producer Scott Rudin. (Amr Alfiky/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- Little Island, the $260 million park on the Hudson River that opened in 2021, was imagined as a haven for innovation in the performing arts. But the park’s cultural offerings — mostly sporadic, one-off works — have so far fallen short of those ambitions.

Now Barry Diller, the billionaire media mogul who paid for the park, is setting out to deliver on the original vision, financing a robust, four-month annual performing arts festival on Little Island, the park announced Monday. He is doing so with the guidance of Scott Rudin, a film, television and theater producer who retreated from public view in 2021 amid accusations of bullying by workers in his office.

Diller said in an interview that he and his family foundation were prepared to spend more than $100 million over the next two decades on programming. The festival, one of the most ambitious artistic undertakings in New York City in recent years, will promote new work in music, dance, theater and opera. Nine premieres are planned this year for June through September, including a full-length work by choreographer Twyla Tharp, and an adaptation of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in which countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo will sing all of the leading roles.

“I want people to enjoy the originality and adventure of Little Island,” Diller said. “I want it to produce a smile.”

Rudin, a friend of Diller’s and a longtime adviser to Little Island, was not mentioned in a news release Monday announcing the creation of the festival, but Diller said he was intimately involved in its planning.

“He’s engaged in almost every discussion we have about the programming,” Diller said. “It started with him. It was his project.”

Rudin said in an interview that he hoped to help Little Island realize its potential. He has not spoken much publicly since apologizing in 2021 for “troubling interactions with colleagues” after former employees accused him of abusive behavior. (Since stepping back from Broadway and Hollywood, Rudin said he had been working on projects with friends, including some movies and plays.)

“I’m the cheerleader here,” Rudin said of the new festival, “trying to help them get the people they want to have work here, and in a way, try to gently help them figure out how to structure it.”

“This is the ultimate finish of something that I was part of starting,” he added.

Diller has described his vision for Little Island as a “park and performance space in equal measure.” The park has hosted a flurry of music, dance and comedy performances since its opening; the inaugural summer featured more than 160 performances. But Diller felt the quality had been lacking.

“We did literally 500 different things the first year,” he said. “None of them — I don’t want to be insulting to people — none of them really very good or particularly ambitious. I mean, they were all over the place, but they were basically kind of ‘let’s just entertain the folks.’”

Last year, Diller hired director-producer Zack Winokur, who had been recommended by Rudin (the two had worked to stage pop-up performances during the pandemic). Winokur now oversees programming as the producing artistic director.

In an interview, Winokur said that the festival, which will focus largely on artists based in New York and feature more than 100 performances, would generate new work at a time when many cultural institutions are slashing budgets, staff and programming. Tickets will cost $25 for performances at Little Island’s amphitheater, which seats 687; entry will be free for shows at the Glade, the park’s 200-seat space.

“I hope that this is of incredible utility and of incredible service to artists who live here — to be making bold new work at a time when it’s difficult,” Winokur said. “And I hope that it will be delightful, entertaining and provocative for audiences.”

To open the season in June, Tharp will present “How Long Blues,” with new music by T Bone Burnett and David Mansfield. Tharp said in an interview that the experience of creating a piece for a new space has been daunting — and invigorating. Diller has recently shown up at rehearsals, she said.

“He’s being very brave about everything,” she said. “He likes to know how things work. He likes to know the machinery that’s underneath the product.”

In September, Costanzo will star in a 90-minute adaptation of “The Marriage of Figaro.” In an interview, he said he was excited by the possibilities of the park, which he described as “uniquely artistic in its construction.”

The summer lineup also includes “The Oyster Radio Hour,” a live three-act radio show that tells the story of oysters in the Hudson River, by a team that includes composer Angélica Negrón and Yo-Yo Ma’s Our Common Nature initiative.

Bass-baritone Davóne Tines and Winokur will present a project about Paul Robeson, the pioneering singer, actor and activist. And Henry Hoke’s novel “Open Throat,” about a mountain lion who identifies as queer and lives in the hills surrounding the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, will come to the stage.

Diller said the festival, which also features comedy and jazz, was a response to what he described as a loss of artistic vitality in New York since the pandemic.

“This great city, which used to be so filled with so much creation, really suffered coming out of COVID,” he said. “We don’t want to bring stuff from someplace else. We don’t want to be a retread of anybody else’s work.”

Diller and his family foundation have committed to financing Little Island’s operations for 20 years. That commitment extends to the festival, he said.

“We’re just lucky enough that we don’t have any constraints really,” he said. “We’re not impractical idiots, I hope. But we do have the ability to make it up and have it come out there.”

He said public art can bring people unexpected pleasure.

“We’re not curing a disease here,” he said. “But when you just see people walking across the city to Little Island, they begin to smile. And when they leave, they’re smiling. How could you not love that?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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