Downtown fest offers art, song and…health care?


By Steven Snyder

Howl’s bark, and bite, lasts far past this weekend

Health care’s the hot topic just about everywhere these days — and that holds true at this year’s Howl! Festival as well. Since 2003, the so-called “countercultural county fair” has been an East Village’s summer staple — where the downtown arts community has rallied to celebrate creativity and, in the service of a lesser known goal, raise funds to create a financial safety net for struggling artists. This quest recently came to fruition, thanks to the festival’s interactions with the Actors Fund and a substantial anonymous donation that was received over the last year.

It’s for this reason that the 2009 Howl! gathering (September 4, 5, 6) may be the most jubilant yet — serving as both a three-day marathon of the arts and a campaign of awareness. “I can’t even begin to describe how great it feels, that this year we have such great news to share with our artists and volunteers,” says Howl! organizer Marguerite Van Cook.

Dubbed the “Howl! Emergency Life Project (HELP) of the Actors Fund,” this newly-created fund’s mission is simple: To provide emergency assistance to qualified performing artists in crisis — offering assistance in everything from health and social services to housing assistance and employment support. It’s the sort of good news that Van Cook says merits a great party.

For seven years now, the event has united hundreds of artists together with thousands of residents eager to celebrate the artistic hub that is the East Village. “Every year, it’s such a treat to see all this art brought out into the community,” Van Cook says. “There are many people living here who can’t afford to check out all this city has to offer, but with Howl!, you literally bring it into the park, and people can surround themselves with this creativity for an entire weekend. You don’t have to come to the art, we bring it to you.”

The ever-expanding event (founded by Two Boots pizza restaurant owner Phil Hartman in response to the escalating gentrification of downtown Manhattan) will bring out more than 500 artists in three days. Regarding the sprawling itinerary, Van Cook notes: “For those who’ve never been here before, you just have to start with Hip Hop Howl,” she says, pointing to the music event scheduled for September 5. “It started in a very miniscule way, but it’s been growing over the last seven years and now, this year, it’s just an incredible showcase. I think one tends to forget that our community extends all the way to the East River, and this event helps Howl! to be inclusive of all the differing demographics that makes the East Village such a remarkable place.”

This year’s Hip Hop Howl (hiphophowl.com) includes both a live daytime show featuring more than two dozen artists (in the form of a “live mixtape showcase” that runs from 5-7 p.m.) and an evening jam: The 2nd annual Hip Hop Howl! Mixtape Release party (from 9-11 p.m. at the Bowery Poetry Club).

Van Cook singles out “Art Around the Park” (howlfestival.com/artaroundthepark) as one of her favorite events. Beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 5, more than a half mile of canvas will be erected around the perimeter of Tompkins Square Park — for use by some 140 artists to create works side by side. “Just to see everyone come together at one place at one time, it’s enough to inspire anyone,” Van Cook says, pointing to such prominent alumni of the event as Phoebe Legere, Rick Prol, David Green, Zito, Chico, Jim C, James Romberger (Van Cook’s husband). “I just enjoy the hell out of this every year, and my husband’s going to be back this year, working together with a graffiti artist in creating a piece. This is part of the Howl! experience; to see the older artists mentoring the younger ones, even as they themselves are getting inspired by all this young energy.”

Howl’s theatrical sidebar spans not just Labor Day weekend but the entire month of September at the 45 Bleecker St. Theater (howlfestival.com/bleeckerst). Beginning with a special kick-off event at 11 p.m. on September 3 (complete with a late-night video installation, art auction and concert), more than a dozen productions will pass through the East Village venue.

The series continues September 9 with a drag, burlesque and vaudeville revue by Michael Formika Jones — a show that pays homage to the evolving façade of the East Village arts scene. It concludes September 29 with a double-bill of short plays: Frank O’Hara’s 1951 “Try! Try!,” a blending of Greek tragedy and Hollywood farce; and Kristin Prevallet’s “Clutter,” a love story based around the absurdity of society. 45 Bleecker will also play host to a Howl! jazz festival from September 23-26.

Also of note is “Low Life 3: Viper Mad” (howlfestival.com/lowlife), a show inspired by the early 20th century “viper” culture of New York City. Replete with downtown hipsters, Harlem jazzmen and a pervasive drug culture, Van Cook says “You can’t just describe it as a throwback to the 1930s, though. It’s just extraordinary, with crazy costumes, ‘30s grammar, gorgeous gals, fabulous drag queens, and an audience that is dressed up and looking just as good as the performers. It’s an event.” That event happens from 5-7 p.m. on September 6.

From 3-5 p.m. on September 5, it’s an outdoor concert (howlfestival.com/sounds) with music from Soundhouse — a personal crush of Van Cook’s. “The group is just incredible,” she assures; “led by Mr. Reed — who is this cross between James Brown and Marvin Gaye; this mix of soul and R&B and funk. And to have this music kicking off in the middle of the afternoon, that’s going to be a great time.”