For work that fits the traditional definition of “commercial theater,” avoid the Under the Radar festival at all costs.
As part of the fest, auds can see a show with 24 people pulling together braids of old clothes to make geometrical shapes down at the World Financial Center (“This Fable Is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle”); the Polish adaptation of Brecht’s “In the Jungle of Cities” (“Versus”); and the Faustian animation/puppetry hybrid (“The Devil You Know”), among other eclectic fare.
Organized under the auspices of the Public Theater, the Gotham legit fest this year includes 20 productions running Jan. 6-17, and there are few Broadway hopefuls in the mix.
A UTR stamp of approval gives most of these shows a pretty good shot at getting picked up for production somewhere. That’s thanks largely to fest mastermind Mark Russell’s symbiotic relationship with the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters, which holds a conference in New York Jan. 8-12, right in the middle of Under the Radar.
APAP, which helps fund the fest (its annual budget varies between $500,000 and $650,000) boasts members from all 50 states and 15 countries, so UTR has become one of the few theater festivals in the country tied to a group representing hundreds of presenting venues. Those orgs are the folks any festival entrant wants to impress the most.
I’m trying to put a face on small-scale theater for American and international presenters,” says Russell, UTR’s a.d. and producer. He observes that while the recession hasn’t exactly helped struggling theater artists, it’s ginned up interest in the type of work he showcases at UTR.
Even in the boom times people were looking for that solo show that will run forever,” he says. “There’s a do-it-yourself ethos that pervades this festival.”
Because APAP is a national org, most of these shows don’t get picked up in New York, but some of the bigger names have transferred: Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size” was the big hit from the 2007 fest. It transferred to the Public and then was revived again and done in rep with a full trilogy of McCraney’s work called “The Brother/Sister Plays” last year. The trilogy’s been all over the country, too.
Mike Daisey’s “How Theater Failed America” started at UTR in 2008 and played Joe’s Pub at the Public in Gotham, Los Angeles’ Kirk Douglas and Washington, D.C.’s, Woolly Mammoth, among others. Dael Orlandersmith’s “Stoop Stories” (also 2008) played D.C.’s Studio Theater. Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s “Poetics: A Ballet Brut” played Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and Young Jean Lee’s “Church” played Columbus, Ohio’s, Available Light Theater within months of being re-presented at UTF in 2008 (both shows had come and gone at Off Broadway venues). Taylor Mac’s “The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac” transferred to Here Arts Center and toured all over and Mac has become a big Off Off Broadway name since.
APAP president and CEO Sandra Gibson says her org derives plenty of benefit from the partnership: Her constituents, who rep performing arts centers and theaters across the country, get to see work that isn’t prohibitively expensive and breaks new ground. She hopes the relationships between artists and presenters will establish permanent lines of communication and industry.
We’re seeing the beginnings of the alignment of resources that you have in other, smaller countries that could create this sort of infrastructure in the U.S.,” Gibson says.
On a local level, the fest introduces work to New Yorkers they otherwise might never have a chance to see.
A combination stage/screen/live-music adaptation of John Cassavetes’ film “Husbands” would doubtless have been too risky for most theaters to produce without first seeing what they were getting into. Here, ambitious theater artists without long resumes can have their work vetted — such shows as “Husbands” are also able to get finishing funds from UTR.
I never know what’s going to be a big hit with the presenters,” Russell says. This year, he’s seen interest in returning Off Broadway hit “Chekhov Lizardbrain,” multimedia musical seminar “Chautauqua!” and Phil Soltanoff’s “LA Party.” Known quantities like “Lizardbrain” and pirate-puppet rock hit “Jollyship the Whiz-Bang” are frequently of interest to out-of-town producers — they come with critical cachet attached, which can help offset the risks inherent in staging a pricey or strange show.
Russell is careful about maintaining UTR’s own cachet, too. “I’m mixing in masters,” he says.
Helmer Anne Bogart, puppeteer Ping Chong and performance artist Richard Maxwell all have work in this year’s festival, which gives the younger theatermakers a leg up, since appearing at a festival alongside an established theatrical brand can boost credentials.
UTR is now in its sixth year, and Russell says he concurs with Gibson in hoping the fest will start to widen its reach. The org’s new ventures include a group brainstorming session called Devoted and Disgruntled. Phelim McDermott (co-helmer of the upcoming “The Addams Family”) founded the event in London with his theater company, Improbable, and Russell hopes the think tank will be a place where he can go fishing for new ideas.
We’re trying to address some of the needs of the artists,” Russell says. “I think you’re going to see Under the Radar developing work more.”