On June 1, 2023, the Public Theater announced its 2023-24 season, which featured world or New York premieres by major artists like Suzan-Lori Parks and Itamar Moses—and one glaring, devastating absence. This year, for the first time since 2006, the Public would not be the institutional home to the Under the Radar Festival, which, under the leadership of Mark Russell and Meiyin Wang, had presented experimental American and international work every January to a local and global audience. Initially timed to coincide with the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference, over the years UTR began to be anticipated each year by audiences as a moment to encounter pathbreaking artistic work, and by artists as a platform for wider exposure to the field.
Responses to the Public’s decision were swift and angry, reflecting concern that the jettisoning of Under the Radar was a symptom of a growing citywide and national hostility to experimental performance, and arising amid outrage at the shrinking of the nonprofit theatre industry more widely. (The Public laid off approximately 19 percent of its staff a month later.)
For Mark Russell, Under the Radar’s founder, the “divorce”—his words—was both a disappointment and a provocation to think about the festival anew. Within months, Russell had teamed up with new producing partners and institutions across New York City and beyond, and in October announced a new incarnation of Under the Radar, to be hosted at multiple venues Jan. 5-21, featuring a diverse lineup of artists and formal experiments, for a total of 23 shows across 17 venues. Theatre for a New Audience’s presentation of Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s Public Obscenities, a notable work from Soho Rep’s 2022-23 season, features in the festival, as does new work by festival regulars Peter Mills Weiss and Julia Mounsey. International artists and major theatres are represented—Inua Ellams’s Search Party at Lincoln Center, Luke Murphy’s Volcano at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s Our Class at BAM—as are new methods of showcasing work in progress, like a lineup labeled UFO, which invites audiences to developmental showings around the city.
American Theatre spoke with Russell in December to learn more about the sudden demise—and rapid rebirth—of Under the Radar.
MIRIAM FELTON-DANSKY: The festival lost its home base at the Public in June, with the Public citing financial reasons. Is there anything more you could tell me about how that ending came about, and then how this new iteration got started?
MARK RUSSELL: The Public had to cut $10 million out of their budget. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t—we had had such a great festival in 2023. So it was a shock, but it also was liberating. I’ve been thinking all the time about Under the Radar and trying to imagine how it would grow in the future. This opened that up for me. It was almost a creative burst of energy. And then to have everyone show such concern, even grief—I felt like, this is a little bit bigger. I felt it had a place and it could have a better place, even a bigger place in this community.
The current partners who are producing the festival with you, were they already collaborators?
Some were already. We were doing things off-site when we were at the Public—which sometimes the Public was a little annoyed with, because they were marketing things that they didn’t get the ticket income from! I knew all these folks, of course, socially. Theatre people don’t have a lot of resources, but they do have shows. One reason this festival became so large is that everyone wanted to contribute a show. It’s been kind of a Cinderella tale in that way.
How many of the artists you’re working with this time were you already in conversation with? Is that how the programming came together so quickly?
There were a few artists that I still had some subsidy left for, and I hated to leave that on the table. Many of the people that are performing at Lincoln Center with Queens of Sheba and Inua Ellams—I already had funds to help get them here. And there were artists that I had been watching or had helped. Shayok Misha Chowdhury’s Public Obscenities was one of the best things I saw last year, and it happens to be by someone who spent some time at the Devised Theater Working Group at the Public. One of the things that Under the Radar can do—something that doesn’t always happen—is international exchange. I’m about global citizenship, which I think the U.S. takes for granted, or doesn’t participate in at all.
Yes, I noticed the phrase “global citizenship” in the press materials and I was curious what that means to you and what that means for theatre.
It is accepting our place in the world as an equal in a sense, and that the cultural exchange is important. It is important for us to understand what Israelis are going through, or Palestinians, or people in the suburbs of Brussels. That is one way we communicate, and the U.S. should communicate with the world.
In fostering that exchange, do you see a central institutional hub becoming important to the festival again?
I miss having a central place, but I think the organization is going to be very different in the future. It was wonderful at the Public, but the Public is a really big beast. We can’t go back that way. Now that Under the Radar exists out of my kitchen, it’s a little easier to find common ground with a lot of institutions. I’ve never dealt with TFANA, and it was rare to deal with St. Ann’s Warehouse, because they have their own audiences and they don’t need this. This year’s festival is pushing collaboration between organizations, giving a channel where they can actually do art together. In this time of non-abundance, we need to share resources and see what we can make together.
Do you think the festival will always be New York-based?
Well, it’s first of all speaking to its community in New York. But we already are starting to make a festival that could go across the country. Instead of just having these people come to New York, I’m trying to send them to Oklahoma, or D.C., or Seattle.
I noticed you are publicizing the “On The Road” portion of the festival, for which pieces have a planned tour somewhere outside New York before the festival opens. Is that a new aspect of Under the Radar?
We had a thing a year or two ago called Under the Radar On the Road. It was trying to get international artists especially to have an experience of the U.S. that is not just New York. I have dreams of creating a national festival. I think this country needs a national festival. To take these intimate performances and offer them to the rest of the country, because people really respond to them.
You’ve mentioned the idea of an intimate performance and what it means to bring that somewhere else. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is, what does “experimental” mean in this moment? Does that idea still have purchase, or is describing theatre in terms of its scale a more helpful way of thinking about it?
Originally I wanted to call it independent theatre. And then all of the regional theatres reminded me that they’re independent theatres. They’re not state-funded, thank you! So I had to back away from that. But really I’m looking at people that are producing out of their kitchens and with their own small management companies and things like that. The idea of avant-garde or experimental—it’s always so fluid, and sometimes can be seen better in hindsight. I think we’re experimental when we’re lucky. At the same time, I’m interested in work that’s going to shake up the form in some way. But that could even be in…excellence. I would say, if it was many years ago and Mark Rylance was running the Globe and he had one of those performances only lit by candles and played exactly how Shakespeare might’ve had done it—I would think that was a radical show and that would fit in Under the Radar in my book.
What is the work like now? What kinds of things are this year’s pieces saying?
I don’t book by theme. But I’m interested in how these works bump up against each other. There are feelings of coming out from under from isolation salted in there. There are people that want to laugh, to have joy, and those shows are there. They’re kind of woven all the way through the festival.
Are any of these shows world premieres?
You know, I don’t have a lot invested in that. This year especially, since we were putting it together on the run in five months, and I feel some responsibility to be a home for these artists. But we’re really trying, in the future, to find the things that are on the edge—the things that will disrupt your idea of what theatre is. I was really happy when I found out that Public Obscenities was going to be at TFANA. One of these people that started in the smallest part of our program now making this masterwork—you know, maybe Avignon Festival will want to bring it.
Speaking of the Devised Theater Working Group, which used to present as part of the festival at the Public, does that still live with Under the Radar?
We did lose that in the divorce. It’s a great program. But we’re trying to address that with a few different things. There are “Coming Attractions,” which is talks with artists that have works that can tour, and we’ve added this thing called UFOs, little showcases and things in progress around the city. We have “TeaTime with Salty Brine,” a gender illusionist who’s well beloved downtown and an incredible interviewer and personality, and one of our festival artists comes and speaks with him for 30 to 45 minutes; I’m going to stream it and try to make those post-show discussions a lot of fun.
Last summer, not just with happened with Under the Radar, but with so many theatres across the country, it felt like a real crisis for the performing arts. Where do you sit with that sense of crisis now? Do you have optimism in terms of a more equitable field?
I do. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of possibility. I mean, we’ve run into some serious challenges and obstacles. And the way you go around an obstacle can sometimes make something even more interesting. That’s what’s been happening with Under the Radar. Maybe I can fix it up for a longer life, which I hope. In the summer it was pretty dark. It’s still really dark. Sometimes this stuff can bring you back to why you’re doing it. Do you need that set? Those high ticket prices? What is the experience of going to the theatre? Why has it got this barrier in the U. S.? I don’t think that Under the Radar is that much of an answer, but we are showing a little bit more of a path toward what could happen. I used to work in a theatre that had four columns in it that were pretty prominent and they ended up in every show. I think they made the work stronger, because you couldn’t lie in front of those columns. You had to be real. And I think that’s what, these days, people really respond to.
Miriam Felton-Dansky (she/her) is associate professor of Theater & Performance at Bard College.
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