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BY TRAV S.D. | The year 2005 proved to be pretty earthshaking: North Korea went nuclear, Angela Merkel became the first female leader of Germany, YouTube posted its first video, and New Orleans was nearly destroyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But here in New York, Mark Russell, the popular longtime artistic director of PS122, launched his next glorious project by founding the Under the Radar Festival. The 2018 edition of Under the Radar, running from Jan. 4–15, will be the 14th one, and the largest and most ambitious one to date, with over 155 performances featuring artists from across the US and around the world, including Cuba, China, Canada, Italy, Japan, UK, Poland, and Slovenia.
“I didn’t think it would go this long,” Russell said, with a self-deprecatory laugh. “Next year will be our fifteenth festival. It’s pretty incredible. At first we were at St. Anne’s [Warehouse, in Brooklyn]. This begat our relationship with The Public [Theater] the next year. The Public liked it and we were able to continue it all these years through the support of foundations. Now the festival is fully integrated into The Public’s core programming.”
Under the Radar’s official mission is to “provide a high-visibility platform to support artists from diverse backgrounds who are redefining the act of making theater” and to be a “launching pad for new and cutting-edge performance.”
“In the beginning,” Russell explained, “the agenda was to experiment to see if stuff that was under the radar of the mainstream could infiltrate the world of producers and presenters and regional theatre directors in the hope that artists could make more successful inroads into the culture.”
Some of the well-known artists who gained more widespread recognition through their involvement at Under the Radar over the years have included Elevator Repair Service, Young Jean Lee, Mike Daisey, Taylor Mac, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and international companies like Italy’s Motus Theatre Company, Belarus Free Theatre, and Gob Squad, which is composed of British and German artists.
“A lot of the work in regional theatre is playwright-driven, or New York or LA actor-driven work that adheres to Equity regulations as far as building three weeks of rehearsal time, and so forth,” Russell noted, “and lots of good theatre is made that way. But other people use different strategies. But it’s often about us presenting material and contemporary voices that Americans are not used to yet, but are getting more used to all the time. We are trying to find the other voices that are not being heard yet.”
A few highlights from the 2018 festival include British lip synch performer and “drag fabulist” Dickie Beau; New Yorker scribe Adam Gopnik performing “The Gates: An Evening of Stories” as directed by The Moth’s Catherine Burns; Split Britches’ “Unexploded Ordnances (UXO),” an anxiety-prone meditation on aging and doomsday developed through conversation with elders and artists; “Thunderstorm 2.0” is acclaimed Chinese director Wang Chong’s dismantling/reassemblage of Cao Yu’s early 20th century drama; Cuba’s Teatro El Público does a version of “Antigone” mixing elements of fashion, spectacle, cabaret, theater, and drag; and free concerts by Canadian sing-along flash mob experience Choir! Choir! Choir! and faux “basement get-down party” celebrity Shasta Geaux Pop. The venues are The Public Theater and Joe’s Pub, La MaMa, NYU Skirball, Japan Society, and Brooklyn’s BRIC.
In addition there will be several post-show discussions, panels, and symposia featuring the artists in conversation about their work.
“When Under the Radar started [in 2005], we presented eight or nine shows. This year it’s 26!” Russell enthused. “I wanted to go all out this year and include a lot of people. Old fogeys, young fogeys, music theatre pieces. The diversity of it has been exciting.”
Under the Radar Festival runs Jan. 4–15. Prices start at $25. For tickets and the schedule, visit publictheater.org/Under-the-Radar.