Up Front and Center

Written by Jerry Portwood on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


Spend
some time in the city’s crummy basements, sitting in uncomfortable
seats (or no seats at all), and you may start to weary of the land of
experimental theater and performance. So it’s simple to understand the appeal of having a
curated experience of emerging talent presented by one of the country’s
premier cultural institutions. Now in its seventh year, the Public
Theater’s Under the Radar festival promises the exhilaration of a new
theater fix without having to creep through the city’s underbelly. Think
of it as a way for a little old lady to have drugs delivered to her
door.

But
with this year’s lineup including names like Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer
Prize) and Barry McGovern (Beckett interpreter extraordinaire), one
begins to question what it means to be “under the radar.” Mark Russell,
the producer of the show since its inception, admits that the name has
begun to bite them in the ass. “Originally, it was more to that point,”
he explains.

Russell
was also the executive artistic director of P.S. 122 from 1983-2004, so
he has been getting his hands dirty in the land of misfits for decades.
“This is probably the most mainstream thing I’ve ever done,” he says.
“But to others, it’s still way out there.”

Of
course it’s all relative. While Taylor Mac may now seem like a breakout
star on the Downtown circuit, even touring internationally (he’s
presenting in the festival for the second time), his name means nothing
to a wide range of people. “Eric Bogosian may be a big star to you and
me,” Russell explains, “but say his name to someone on the street, and
they still don’t know who he is.”

Under
the Radar is, in fact, a small organization inside a much larger
one—with all the bureaucracies that entails—and, according to Russell,
“I try to dismantle it each year and ask, ‘What do we really need to be
doing?’”

This
year the festival has a decidedly international flavor with work from
Chile (Guillermo Calderón’s Diciembre), Africa (Correspondances) and
Europe. Much of this work would not have an opportunity to be seen in
the city otherwise and, rather than wait for a special engagement once
the work has been anointed by some other organization—such as Lincoln
Center and BAM do with their branded festivals of intellectual
international fare—this offers exposure to groups so that they may be
able to build a tour or land other high-profile gigs.

Under
the Radar takes place in that space in early January when the
members of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters converge on the city, and
other festivals such as COIL (at P.S. 122) and CULTUREMART (at HERE) and American Realness (at the Abrons Arts Center) are
also scheduling edgy, little-seen and brand new work. In Russell’s estimation, there
are potentially more combined performances taking place during these few
cold weeks than all those during the annual Edinburgh International
Festival, known as a incubator for ground-breaking talent. Also, this year, it may not be as comfortable as just plopping down in a theater at the Public and seeing a piece. Due to extensive renovations taking place at the Lafayette Street location, many of the performances are taking place "off-campus" at La Mama, Dixon Place, HERE and the Abrons Arts Center. So, it may be more of a psychic and physical adventure than years past.

Of
course, programming a 12-day festival with a limited number of slots
for performances, Russell and his team must make difficult choices. It’s
a “messy process,” Russell explains in regards to the way pieces are
selected. Ultimately it’s what he responds to at a gut level and what he
thinks New York and American audiences need to be confronted with.

“I
hope we will infiltrate the American theater,” Russell says. “We
want to question, ‘What is theater? Why do we do theater now?’ It’s an
opportunity to isolate why we are in the room together.”

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