Under the Radar 2012: An Interview With Curator Mark Russell

A scene from GOODBAR, running January 4-15 at The Public Theater as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Photo by Hassan E. Hussein.

“There were a lot of conversations between funders and the field about why these companies, like the Wooster Group, were not getting brought into the major regional theaters. They were working in an almost underground system with these presenters,” Mark Russell explained. This was late last week, and we were sitting in a large empty conference room in the Public Theater’s offices, discussing the origins of the Under the Radar Festival, which opens January 4.

Now in its eighth year, UTR was Russell’s brainchild. The long-time and first artistic director of PS 122 (where, technically, he helped initiate the project that became Culturebot as part of a new media outreach campaign), Russell had become engaged in conversations about how to raise the profile of what, for lack of a better term, we’ll call “contemporary performance.” (“Ten years ago it was ‘experimental theater.’ This year it’s ‘devised theater,'” he says. “I got news for you, all theater is devised.”) Around the end of his tenure at PS 122, the Texas-born and raised Russell was invited by the University of Texas to program a festival of new work, called Fresh Terrain, at their Austin campus, which became a prototype for UTR. After a turn as the largely remote curator of Portland, Oregon’s TBA Festival–“I really believe a presenter has to be in this community,” he told me–Russell received substantial support from major funders, led by the Duke Foundation, to establish a two-part program of American and international performance, in an attempt to raise awareness of the work and get in front of reluctant, traditional theater programmers and artistic directors.

Such was the birth of Under the Radar. Presented since its second year as a program of the Public Theater, UTR is an associate program of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, whose annual conference every January in New York brings in programmers and curators from around the globe.

“Even when I was at PS 122,” Russell told me, “I always held the slots in January for artists I wanted to introduce, the young artists I thought had international touring promise. For instance, that’s when I did, I believe, Danny Hoch and Richard Maxwell.”

At PS 122 it was an extremely practical choice. Not only did January artists get exposed to global presenters, but given that the rest of the theater scene was in the midst of the winter doldrums, there was less competition for attention, and otherwise reluctant critics were easier to get in the theater. But when Russell approached UTR, he had different concerns in mind. A component of APAP is and has always been dozens of showcase performances of work intended mainly for programmers, with choreographers and dance companies and other sorts of artists competing for touring and residency opportunities by renting space and showing thirty minutes or so of a given piece. But theater is less amenable than dance to the “showcase” setting, so Russell set out to create a destination festival, bringing in a mix of the best artists nationally and internationally, putting their work in front of their global peers, and seeking to generate dialogue.

This year the program features a variety of both known commodities and relatively fresh faces. Asked if there was anyone in particular that really exciting him to present, he immediately responded: “I really threw down early for Toshiki Okada and chelfitsch,” whose Air Conditioner, Hot Pepper and the Farewell Speech is one of two co-presentations between UTR and the Japan Society this year.

“I thought he’s a real visionary artist and I want him to be seen,” Russell told me. “I wanted him to be part of the program in this building,” he told me, gesturing to the Public around us, “but the resources that Japan Society has are so much better. So we made sort of a satellite venue for that. And they’ve brought him before, and I sort of wanted to de-ghettoize that,” he said, meaning that he wanted to offer a larger profile and a longer run than they’d previously received.

Continuing to glance through the festival’s program, Russell described some of the other pieces. “Waterwell is a sharp, sharp company. A punk-glam concert version of Looking for Mr. Goodbar. It has this great video component where actally Ira Glass plays a character and Moby pops up and Bobby Cannavale solos. So all this sort of weird back and forth between the music and video.”

Pointing to the listing for Sontag: Reborn, based on Susan Sontag’s diaries, he explained: “The Builders always do things for BAM, that are really big, and very technological. So this is their attempt to make a pocket piece that could maybe reach different audiences.”

Asked about what guided his choices, and whether there was any sort of theme to the programming, Russell laughed. “I wish I was that smart,” he said self-effacingly.

“The themes arise,” from the work presented, he explained. “It’s more interesting for me to see them come out. And this year it’s resistance and revolution and a sort of political identity. And it’s only a few shows that really that do that. The one that sort of helped click it was Alexis. A Greek Tragedy by Motus. And then they’ve been working with Judith Malina since their show last year,” he said of the company’s second piece in this year’s festival. Last year, Motus brought their version of Antigone to UTR, which was based on the Living Theater’s work from years before. Malina, one of the Living Theater’s co-founders, saw it and the two began collaborating to present a mash-up of the two, The Plot is the Revolution.

“I normally try not to bring people back the next year again, but in this case I’m doing that,” Russell said. “I think the time is right, their work is right on it.”

UTR has grown substantially over the last eight years, with a satellite operation, Radar LA, launched in 2010 with co-presenters in Los Angeles, that was originally time to coincide with the annual TCG Conference. But the festival is growing legs of its own and a new edition will be presented in 2013. And then there’s the festivals relationship to the Public proper. This January, Gob Squad–the Anglo-German company whose Kitchen: you never had it so good, was the hit of the 2011 festival–will be part of the Public’s main season (Jan. 19-Feb. 5).

“I have a long relationship with Oskar Eustis,” Russell told me. “We were both young bucks here back in the Seventies. We didn’t really know each other that well, but I knew him when he was doing experimental work back in ’77. So I can blackmail him a lot!” he added with a laugh, before continuing.

“This is a really big one for us, with Gob Squad, in taking one that Oskar has actually not seen! He’s seen it on videotape, he’s heard us talk about it…” he was explaining before I interrupted, pointing out that a work that live-mixes video doesn’t seem like something that work well as a record. “It doesn’t work on video!” he agreed. “It’s huge risk, so if it does fail, well, I won’t have access to the season.” He added the last bit with a grin.

As the interview closed, I asked Russell for some thoughts about the state of the arts world, and the January madness in general. Although its a singular opportunity for audiences to get to sample amazing theater and dance from all over the place, it has a lot of downsides. Many of the works by New York artists have been remounts for the benefit of presenters, often done with little or no support. And with the growth that’s occurred in public-facing festivals since UTR was founded–PS122’s COIL is in its sixth and most ambitious year, and American Realness at Abrons has exploded as it enters its third year, in addition to HERE’s Culturemart, which has actually moved its programming to later in the month, out of the APAP window–it’s getting harder and harder for the artists to stand out.

“I’m happy that these other festivals have grown up,” Russell said. “And at one point I though, well, let’s make a really big festival. But since then…well, this is–” he pointed to the program on the table in front of us “–less than we did last year. And we started that way, before even we knew we’d have budget cuts. To focus more, to make these things really special, so when get a gig at Under the Radar, it’s a good gig. And it’s getting dangerous at this point, because you have all these presenters descended at this time, and they have so many shows to see at all these festivals.”

“I’m just hoping that Under the Radar doesn’t become too predictable,” he said. “That’s the major thing–each year is a new one.”

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