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Date: Dec 30, 2008


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Every winter we read about the crowds hopping from screening room to screening room at the Sundance Theatre Festival, and in spring we hear reports back from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. If we’re really attuned to the grapevine, we may hear about the Aspen Comedy Festival, the Avignon Theatre Festival, and so on.

And while New York does have indispensible happenings like the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the Lincoln Center Theatre Festival, even its own far-flung version of a fringe festival, perhaps the most ground-shifting, cutting-edge international festival offered in New York City is Under The Radar, a 12-day extravaganza hosted by downtown’s Public Theatre.

“I’m always going to see work, or my staff is going to see work, sometimes more than one show a night,” says Mark Russell, the former artistic director of PS 122, who has produced Under The Radar for five years now. “And part of the idea of Under The Radar is to bring some of that experience to regular audiences. I find it exhilarating to go to a theatre festival, and to from show to show and watch ideas bounce off of each other. It becomes its own community, all these people watching all this theater together.”

The compression of time and location—almost all the work is being offered in venues at the Public Theatre—helps facilitate what Russell calls the “low-to-the-ground exchange that we need.” The exchange is multinational and multicultural: This year’s roster includes troupes from Cambodia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and Korea, alongside American artists.

So what are the common threads? Russell says it’s not easy to pin them down, at least not beforehand.

“It’s difficult to have large overarching themes when you’re doing live work,” Russell explains. “It doesn’t hold still, this stuff. Curating this is very different from curating a visual art show. It doesn’t look the same every day. Festivals have a tendency to find their own themes. I just try to put up the most interesting work I can find around the world and around the States.”

Does the work have any commonality, then?

“The thing that marks all the work is a fresh approach to the live event,” Russell says. He characterizes the work he brings to Under The Radar as “contemporary, and done by usually pretty young artists who are really in touch with issues in their countries and their neighborhoods. They’re saying what they have to say about that through theatre, and sometimes they’re reinventing theatre in the way they do it. So it may not come from a writer; it may come from a designer or an ensemble, and they may not be trained in the theatre. These are works that don’t necessarily fit easily into the American theatre system of playwright, director, regional theatre.”

After producing theatre for nearly 30 years, is Russell still capable of being surprised? Hasn’t he seen every avant-garde trick in the book?

“Sometimes I think I’m getting too old for this, but then I see something like Lemon Anderson,” Russell says of the Brooklyn-based hip-hop artist whose show, County of Kings: the beautiful struggle, is getting a co-production between the Public and American Place Theatre. “It’s a solo show, so you think, ‘What can you do with a solo show?’ But  he’s got such an amazing way with language and his story is so compelling, I think his show really breaks the mold. Almost all of the shows in Under The Radar have done that for me.”

OK, but what are some of the really wild things he’s got up his sleeve?

“There are a couple that’ll really push your buttons,” Russell says, warming up to the topic. “There’s one Call Cutta in a Box, and it’s for just one or two people at a time. You go to the Geothe Insistut and get your ticket, and you’ll actually be talking to people in Calcutta. It’s put together by a German group, Rimini Protokoll, one of most innovative groups around.

“And there’s a piece called Siren—it’s almost just a musical piece, but it’s put together by theatre people, and I like the way they set it up and the way it happens,” Russell raves. Then he remembers a one-night only event by the ultra-hip World/Inferno Friendship Society called Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre’s 20th Century, described as a song cycle dedicated to the late character actor, about which Russell simply says: “It’s going to be kind of amazing.”

Though Under The Radar began its life at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, the Public Theatre is an appropriate venue for such adventurous fare, as Russell explains.

“The Public Theatre under Joe Papp always hosted some amazing and different groups, like Mabou Mines, who are doing a piece in this year’s festival,” Russell says. Russell’s colleague Oskar Eustis is now the Public’s artistic director, but, as Russell says, “Oskar and I grew up on the Public and its wild ways, where there would be pieces like Hair and For Colored Girls… that were made in odd, unconventional ways. This festival is allowing that world back in for a bit.”

Occasionally work goes from a run at Under The Radar into a full Public production, such as The Brothers Size and Mike Daisey’s How Theatre Failed America. But just being at the Public Theatre in the first place marks an auspicious emergence from the underground.

“It definitely raises the bar,” Russell says. “When you’re playing at the Public Theatre, you can’t be messing around; this is where theatre history is made. It makes people step up.”

Audiences are starting to step up, too.

Click here for more information about Under The Radar.