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The Public Theater nurtures the future of experimental performance at Incoming! at Under the Radar
Since its founding in 2005, the Public Theater's annual Under the Radar festival has been a hub for avant-garde artists from around the globe, showcasing performances by more than 255 trailblazers such as Elevator Repair Service, Belarus Free Theatre, Young Jean Lee and Taylor Mac. But as the fest became a well-known and well-attended 10-day January staple, its creators wondered whether, in addition to presenting boundary-pushing theatre, they could help incubate new work, too? That's why they launched the Devised Theatre Working Group (DTWG), an annual cohort of five to eight emerging artists who get the chance to develop their ideas and aesthetics in a supportive environment. As part of the experience, the participants perform in-process pieces at Incoming!, a mini-festival within Under the Radar.
"It's the newest of the new by design," says Andrew Kircher, who serves as the director of the initiative. "Some of the members of the DTWG don't even self-identify as theatre-makers; they're artists for whom theatre is an interesting playground. We've had designers, installation artists, dancers, musicians and comics. So these are artists at the forefront of what theatre can do."
Most of the half dozen offerings at this year's Incoming! fuse multiple performance genres, such as Eva von Schweinitz's The Space Between the Letters, which resembles a multimedia, multiperson TED Talk about our country's legacy of discrimination and disenfranchisement, or Whitney White's Macbeth in Stride, equal parts old-school rock concert and cogent analysis of Lady Macbeth in relation to the power of black women. These presentations come halfway through the artists' DTWG tenure, so instead of being the culmination of the program, they're another edifying stop on the journey.
"In some ways, the DTWG is in the tradition of a writers' group where they learn together and develop work together," says Kircher. "But there's also a strong element of professional development. These are artists who are creating work outside of the existing system of structures for theatre, so we cover all the challenges they face as independent art-makers, from how to navigate intellectual property law to getting grants to tour readiness, all the things they need to manage on their own. They not only leave us with exceptional work, but they're ready to take advantage of opportunities to go forward."
Of course, being able to share what they can do at Incoming! provides invaluable exposure for participants. Just ask Madeline Wise of New Saloon Theater Co. The company's multi-translation mash-up of Uncle Vanya, Minor Character, was honed in the DTWG two years ago and is now part of Under the Radar proper.
"Incoming! is the apex and then there's the denouement on the other side," Wise says, adding that, thanks to the show's Incoming! performance, they snagged a booking at Connecticut's Sharon Playhouse a few months later. "Now we've come back to the Public and Under the Radar and we feel like a big man on campus."
Peter Mills Weiss and Julia Mounsey's [50/50] old school animation, a ghost story about misogyny and violence against women, was also developed via the DTWG and is now part of Under the Radar.
"The Public has been my goal since I was 18," says Mounsey. "If I told my younger self that one day she would be doing Under the Radar, she would flip out."
"If you're at all interested in experimental performance, Under the Radar is a huge deal," says Weiss, while noting: "I would also say that expectation is pretty tempered in the DTWG itself. It's clear you're there to develop the piece -- it's not an audition for the festival."
Which is why former DTWG members encourage audiences to check out this year's Incoming! performances -- not just the Under the Radar mainstage -- because who knows where those artists will go next.
"From an artistic perspective, Incoming! does feel more cutting-edge," says Weiss. "Its inquiries feel wilder and stranger. It's a place where people who are engaging in strange or weird or nontraditional processes are able to show something off in a big way."
"There aren't a ton of spaces for American groups to exist together and make work together," adds Mounsey, who says that Under the Radar and its ilk often feel like "international marketplaces" whereas Incoming! highlights artists working in New York and other U.S. cities. "It can feel a little bit scrappier in an exciting way."
Beyond the creative camaraderie, there's another reason DTWG alumni want you to see the work of their successors -- they helped pick them.
"Every cohort proposes artists for the next year," explains Kircher. "By design, this system pushes us away from our curatorial center and allows us to tap into new communities and new voices. There's a sort of genealogy -- I know which artists brought on these others artists. That's been one of the most exciting elements of DTWG. Mark [Russell, Under the Radar's artistic director producer] and I still strongly shape each group, but we're following the recommendations and the dictates of the previous cohorts, and the artists they want us to consider."
Five years into this experiment in experimental theatre, DTWG has evolved into a fertile community of pioneering artists who are helping to shape the future of what audiences will see on stage. "Under the Radar is the place you go to catch what's next, so Incoming! is even more of a distillation of that," Kircher says. "We're catching the thing that is still fermenting, that is still growing, artists who are testing the very limits of theatre."
Under the Radar runs January 3 to 13, with Incoming! performances occurring throughout. Visit the official website for the complete lineup.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: New Saloon's Minor Character. Photo by Elke Young.
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