AT YEAR’S END IN NEW YORK CITY, YOU, THE FERVENT THEATREGOER, might be forgiven for feeling a bit of burnout. The Broadway season has just pummeled you; you’re reeling from the Off-Broadway rope-a-dope; Off-Off has baffled you to the point of coma. Deep, evil slush-puddles lurk at street corners, and you’re starting to wonder if show-going in the wintertime is even a good idea. Then, a dangerous misstep: You take a few days off at the end of the year, and you begin to imagine an alternative life, one twinkling with board games and leisurely prepared dinners. This, you think, is what people do at night when they’re not going to the theatre!
Thank heavens, then, that the January festival season—Janfest? Theatrepalooza?—arrives to snap you right out of it.
In downtown New York, the first three weeks of January have become a time of almost absurd theatrical abundance. This is when thousands of devotees converge on several of the year’s best festivals, being thrown simultaneously. Stimulated by the presence of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and its yearly conference, savvy producers now offer a multifarious buffet of their favorite artists and productions, all handily displayed for the APAP programmers’ convenience.
Forget the programmers, though: From Jan. 8–19, you too can pretend you’re at a Big Apple Festival d’Avignon (but without the castles), or an enormous East Coast Edinburgh Fringe (again, sans castle). It’s a tight circuit you’ll run: from the Public Theater’s expansive Under the Radar Festival at Astor Place; to the Incubator Arts Project’s tidy Other Forces festival, a quick five-block dash to the northeast; then another several snowy blocks south to the dance-centric American Realness, at Abrons Arts Center; on to the widely dispersed COIL Festival; and finally to the new-opera PROTOTYPE Festival, home-based at HERE Arts Center. In just that hectic mile-wide rectangle, you can see some of the best, strangest, most provocative work now being made in America and overseas.
You can also, if you’re a seasonally affected, tuckered-out theatregoer like me, recharge a battery you didn’t know had drained. Meiyin Wang, co-director of the season’s flagship event, UTR, puts it this way: “In festival time, there’s something crackling in the air—the sheer concentration of work and audiences being crushed together creates its own system. It turns into heat and light!”
Vallejo Gantner, artistic director of the venerable experimental venue P.S. 122 and its peripatetic COIL, calls the January jambalaya “the best crash course in what is happening now, not just in New York but around the world. The most exciting, rewarding way to come is to get passes, roll up to festivals, and just go. This has become one of the moments of the year when we are all gathered in New York City.”
Time was, New York in January wasn’t like this—there was little synergy between APAP’s annual symposium and the theatrical season. In its early days, the convention happened in December, so programmers could shop for gifts and shows at once. Even after the convening moved into January, bookers were mostly seeing snippets of work—string quartets playing in hotel rooms, a smorgasbord of 20-minute excerpts from dances.
ACCORDING TO UTR FOUNDER MARK RUSSELL, IT WAS A PIT. “No, literally,” he laughs. “They called it the Pit. People would take over a couple of floors of the Sheraton or the Hilton, or wherever, and they’d show little videos and give out gifts from pipe-and-drape booths. You could shop for anything—Willie Nelson, or an orchestra, or somebody impersonating Mark Twain.” APAP/NYC still throws an expo at the Hilton, but conference-goers now arrive in a city where they can see complete productions in a dozen venues—crucial, considering that theatre productions seldom look very appetizing in their abbreviated format.
In the ’90s and early aughts, artists and producers started realizing that those shows that did happen in January suddenly found themselves with a massively influential audience of tastemakers. HERE Arts Center started timing its work-in-progress showcase, known as CULTUREMART, to coincide with APAP, blazing a trail that others would eventually follow. As funding structures started to decay, touring seemed more and more like a way to keep theatre companies financially viable—and getting far-flung presenters exposure to your work became increasingly crucial.
Meanwhile, APAP itself was looking for new opportunities. Russell again: “When we decided to do Under the Radar, our funding body was actually APAP itself—they paid for a conference, and I turned it into a festival. Where another conference has ‘plenary sessions,’ we would put full work, full pieces.” APAP conventioneers still throng UTR’s halls, though now the Public produces the festival. But the project as envisioned has changed the “shopping” culture for good. As happens with every marketplace, the bazaar has also become an information exchange, an oasis, a caravansérail.
P.S. 122’S GANTER HAS SEEN SEVERAL OF THE SHOWS ON THE CIRCUIT P.S., so he’s offering tips. Lola Arias’s piece El Año en que nací / The year I was born—a documentary piece starring non-actors from Argentina talking about their lives under the Pinochet regime, one of UTR’s most anticipated entries—“is extraordinary and unmissable,” he reports. “And people should also see the company 600 Highwaymen, offering their near-silent, 45-person work THE RECORD—they’re about to really step up.”
Gantner’s own festival can compete. COIL will bring in a crucial young Irish company calledBrokentalkers, and will revive this season’s moving, hilarious House of Dance, New Yorker Tina Satter’s killer-diller heartbreaker about amateur tap-dancers. “And I’m very proud,” announces Gantner, “to say we are also presenting two masters: Mac Wellman, doing his otherworldly monologue Muazzez, and Phil Soltanoff.”
The Incubator Arts Project’s own festival Other Forces, a less intimidating lineup of only four pieces, is being produced again by Shannon Sindelar, who points adventurous theatregoers to Take Me Home, a solo show performed for micro-audiences of three people at a time. “The majority of the performance takes place on the road in a taxi cab, and there are a lot of variables, but some of my favorite artists [director Meghan Finn, writer Alexandra Collier] are at the helm, so I’ve no doubt we’ll be in good hands,” Sindelar says. Her curatorship steers toward the musical—two of her other offerings are Dave Malloy’s supernatural rap-battle comedy Blue Wizard/Black Wizard (co-created by Eliza Bent, a senior editor for this magazine), and Joseph Keckler’s ravishing I am an Opera.
Young agent Ben Pryor, on the dance front, started American Realness in 2010 as a showcase for his own clients, and it has since mushroomed into an important vector for all kinds of innovative dance and performance. Among the works dance-fiends will vie to see this January is the premiere of Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler’s 13 Love Songs, dot dot dot.
Critic and arts reporter Helen Shaw lives in New York City.