NEW YORK — Each year when Mark Russell mounts the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater, he has to ask himself some serious questions about the nature of his profession. This year, the most pressing may have been, “What do we do with the rice?”
For “Of All the People in All the World: USA,” by U.K.-based theater company Stan’s Cafe, Russell had to figure out where to put a grain for every person in the U.S. — about 5 tons of rice, all told. He settled on a gallery space at the World Financial Center, where piles of the foodstuff will be separated into statistically significant portions — a bowl for everyone who ate at McDonald’s today, for example, or maybe a spoonful for all the people who walk to work.
“It’s a lot of freakin’ rice,” Russell admits, but as he describes the piece in greater detail, it becomes clear the prospect of rice excites him for reasons beyond hunger.
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Russell has been pushing theatrical boundaries for years, starting with his 20-year tenure at PS 122, during which he provided early showcases for everyone from Eric Bogosian to the Blue Man Group. With Under the Radar, he’s introduced to Gotham such new works as Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size,” the Civilians’ “Gone Missing” and Will Powers’ Aeschylus adaptation “The Seven” — all of which went on to become Off Broadway hits.
Now he’s working on the fourth Under the Radar fest, running Jan. 9-20. Many of the shows are being staged at the Public, but in special cases (productions needing 5 tons of rice, for example), he seeks out other venues.
Just as he did with PS 122, Russell has grown Under the Radar surprisingly quickly. In four years, it’s gone from a few days at a single venue (St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn), with all the shows he could cram into a $150,000 budget, to a 17-show, 11-day cultural buffet spread out over downtown with $425,000 behind it.
But to hear him tell it, Russell is just gathering the windfall. “I’m picking up pieces that are pretty much wholly made,” he says. “I mean, sometimes I’m providing finishing funds, but a lot of times I’m picking up shows that are finished and have even been road tested.”
Russell sees a gap in the programming tendencies of Gotham theaters: Somewhere between tiny venues like PS 122 and larger Off Broadway houses like Playwrights Horizons, there’s a fertile area he’s anxious to cultivate.
Russell created Under the Radar to help smaller venues around the country (like the 300-seat On the Boards in Seattle or the Wexner Center in Ohio) fill their seasons with new, offbeat and fully formed work. Funding for UTR comes from the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters, an annual Gotham confab that relies on UTR for engaging new material.
“They had these meetings,” Russell recalls. “And one of the problems was that no one was looking at the work. So I said, ‘Let’s have one of these seminars and look at the work and then talk about it.’ And that seemed like a radical idea.”
Russell travels to regional theaters, to Norway, to Scotland, to wherever he can find theater that won’t look like a rehash of last year’s Broadway season to content-hungry presenters. “I run around the world, and I have a lot of spies,” he says. “And then I go around and see things.”
For theater companies that spend months and years honing a play or a routine, the kind of instant exposure UTR offers can be a welcome opportunity.
“There was a Dutch group that (performed at UTR and then) got 20 gigs in the U.S. — not all in New York, just around,” Russell recalls.
Russell brings a varied range of work from the wider world to New York. “I’ve got a pretty wide palate,” Russell says before launching into a description of “Terminus,” a play of interlocking, rhyming monologues that sounds like a cross between “The Terminator” and “Doctor Faustus,” as performed by Ireland’s Abbey Theater Company.From his perspective, it’s all very simple: There are people who want to perform plays, and there are people who need to fill stages. The most difficult problem is where to put all the rice.