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 “festing” cannot be held back or denied. This impulse—as bone-deep a habit as the drama festivals that evolved out of the ancient rituals at City Dionysia—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 cliché to reiterate that the raison d’être of a true festival is to question the natural order. Making mischief while doing things differently is the heart and soul of Mark Russell’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 5–16, 2011 as part of the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters | New York City conference, UTR 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 can’t get a handle on—which they need to further investigate.

UTR’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 country’s gardes of theater festivals. By offering a crash-course sampler of some of the best, worst and not-quite-ready U.S.–based works that exist outside the traditional structures of the American theater, UTR 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), Tarrell 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)—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 (“a festival tracking new theatre from around the world”), UTR has helped facilitate border-crossings between the ethos of new-play development and that of new-work development. After a brief stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, UTR 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, REDCAT’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 newbie as far as promoting the global flow of emerging 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 travels abroad, he avoids the usual suspects of the international festival circuit, because he knows that big spectacles and blockbusters are not always an accurate reflection of what’s really going on inside a country’s contemporary culture.

"Being Harold Pinter" by Belarus Free Theater. Photo by Trent O'Donnell

Take, for example, UTR’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, UTR did not have the funds to pay for 11 plane tickets, 11 visas and hotel rooms. Instead, in January 2008, UTR programmed Generation Jeans, Nikolai Khalezin’s solo piece about how the Belarusian opposition protested against the oppressive regime of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko in September 2005, with the aim of building a U.S. audience for this work. With the Free Theatre’s U.S. production debut, UTR helped give an international 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 year’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 been dubbed “the last dictatorship in Europe.” In our American mania for commercial hits and mainstream acceptance, what hasn’t been explored is how a U.S. festival with a strong international reputation can be an optimistic exhibition of what America could be—how UTR serves both the creative ambitions of America’s new generation of multifaceted experimentalists and also champions the free expression of independent artists from abroad. —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

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