Mark Russell, the Public Theater and Arts Presenters team up for a January festival that gives new work a stage. An award-winning arts writer offers his opinion on the important role the festival plays in the national and international theater scene.
In the theatre nothing is certain, except for death and festivals. Wherever theater people with brains, talent, new projects and chutzpah feel the driving need to be seen and heard, the spur to go â€śfestingâ€ť cannot be held back or denied. This impulseâ€”as bone-deep a habit as the drama festivals that evolved out of the ancient rituals at City Dionysiaâ€”moves a species of culture vultures (touring artists, presenters, curators and culture operators) to action as primal as the hunt for food, the search for identity and the need for assembly.
Festivals are today so ubiquitous a phenomenon that it is too easy for us to dismay of their glut. It also seems a clichĂ© to reiterate that the raison dâ€™ĂŞtre of a true festival is to question the natural order. Making mischief while doing things differently is the heart and soul of Mark Russellâ€™s Under the Radar Festival, which creates an environment in New York City where both artists and audiences can fall out of normal patterns. Its seventh edition taking place January 5â€“16, 2011 as part of the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters | New York City conference, UTRÂ is a place where we have the permission to seek out those aesthetic encounters that overturn our sense of the world. If the work that has been staged or presented is far too difficult for those critics with commercial souls, at the very least UTR reminds us that there is something out there that even diehards canâ€™t get a handle onâ€”which they need to further investigate.
UTRâ€™s essence is the greater mobility of risky artistic repertoire and speed-networking in an international environment. Particularly during the weekend-long symposium geared for professionals (scheduled this year for January 6 and 7), UTR is the most roguishly avant of our countryâ€™s gardes of theater festivals. By offering a crash-course sampler of some of the best, worst and not-quite-ready U.S.â€“based works that exist outside the traditional structures of the American theater, UTRÂ infiltrates the system by giving an establishment platform for devised works from unknown U.S. troupes and boundary-breaking experiments that frequently straddle the lines between artistic genres.
Until recently, the nonprofit theater world was a foreign country for such downtown New York artists as Young Jean Lee (Church), TarrellÂ Alvin McCraney (The Brothers Size), Elevator Repair Service (Gatz), Marc Bamuthi Joseph (the break/s: a mixtape for the stage), Mike Daisey (How Theater Failed America), and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma (Poetics: A Ballet Brut)â€”all of whom managed to use UTR as a springboard to nab bookings, co-productions and a few premieres, both nationally and internationally.
With a deceptively simple tag line (â€śa festival tracking new theatre from around the worldâ€ť), UTR has helped facilitate border-crossings between the ethos ofÂ new-play developmentÂ and that ofÂ new-workÂ development. After a brief stint at St. Annâ€™s Warehouse in Brooklyn, UTRÂ is now firmly ensconced as a core project of the Public Theater and its new Devised Theater Initiative. In June 2011, Los Angeles will inaugurate its own version of UTR, called RADAR L.A, which Russell will co-curate with Mark Murphy, REDCATâ€™s artistic director, and Diane Rodriguez, associate producer and director of new play development at the Center Theatre Group.
The U.S. remains a relative newbieÂ as far asÂ promoting the global flow of emergingÂ foreign works and small-scale international creations is concerned. An impresario of underground theatre, Russell goes off the beaten paths in search of younger foreign artists; when he travelsÂ abroad, heÂ avoids the usual suspects of the international festival circuit, because he knows that big spectacles and blockbusters are not always an accurate reflection of whatâ€™s really going on inside a countryâ€™s contemporary culture.
Take, for example, UTRâ€™s upcoming presentation of Being Harold Pinter from the Belarus Free Theater. Based on seeing a videotape, Russell had wanted as far back as 2007 to produce this 90-minute masterpiece of montage from six Pinter plays, using his Nobel Prize acceptance speech as a spine. Unfortunately, UTRÂ did not have the funds to pay for 11 plane tickets, 11 visas and hotel rooms. Instead, inÂ January 2008, UTR programmed Generation Jeans, Nikolai Khalezinâ€™s soloÂ piece about how the Belarusian opposition protested against the oppressive regime of Belarusian president Alexander LukashenkoÂ in September 2005, with the aimÂ of building a U.S.Â audience for this work.Â WithÂ the Free Theatreâ€™s U.S. production debut,Â UTR helped give anÂ internationalÂ platform to this underground Belarus troupe that has no choice but to perform in private apartments and secret locations in its native city of Minsk because of the risk of exposure and prosecution.
At this yearâ€™s UTR Festival, Being Harold Pinter will be another opportunity for U.S. audiences to engage with these counterculture dissidents from repressive Belarus, which has beenÂ dubbed “the last dictatorship in Europe.” In our AmericanÂ mania for commercial hits and mainstream acceptance, what hasnâ€™t been explored is how a U.S. festival with a strong international reputation can be an optimistic exhibition of what America could beâ€”how UTR serves both the creative ambitions of Americaâ€™s new generation of multifaceted experimentalists and also champions the free expression of independent artistsÂ from abroad. â€”Randy Gener / Inside Arts, Volume 23, Number 1
This essay was first published in the Conference 2011 edition of Inside Arts, the magazine of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters