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Why Do Experimental Theatre?

Date: Dec 21, 2015


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The Public's Under the Radar Festival tackles that vital artistic question


After a two-year sojourn in Switzerland, Mark Russell just got back to the United States, and he can tell you exactly what time he flew into JFK: "September 3rd, around 3 o'clock," he says jovially over the phone. He came home for the final stretch of planning the Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival, whose 12th iteration runs January 6–17.

Russell founded the festival 12 years ago, as a way of showcasing experimental artists from the U.S. and abroad. To date UTR (as it's called by fans) has presented 194 companies from 40 countries. Then in 2013, Russell's wife received a two-year job opportunity overseas. That meant a splitting of duties, with longtime UTR associate producer Meiyin Wang promoted to co-director. She held down the fort on Lafayette Street, while 3,800 miles away, Russell "would do absolutely nothing all day and then around 6 o'clock, I'd start a Google Hangout with the staff."

2016's main line-up is an eight-show mix of first timers (such as French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, and Seattle artist Ahamefule J. Oluo) and repeat visitors (such as the locally based 600 Highwaymen and Japanese playwright/director Toshiki Okada).

One selection is even culled from Russell's time abroad: Samedi Détente, from newcomer Dorothée Munyaneza, a French dancer/singer. She was born and raised in Rwanda and was 12 when the Rwandan genocide occurred. "It is the first time that I feel like we're seeing a real Rwandan voice and not a Western interpretation of what went down in Rwanda," says Russell, who saw the piece in Ghent. "The thing about living in Europe was I had access to not only all the European work, but work that was coming through from Africa and Asia. And that was really exciting."

There are also two works in UTR 2016 that were developed last year as part of the Public's one-year-old Devised Theater Initiative: The Art of Luv (Part 1) from Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble and #ItGetsBitter from Dark Matter. The latter is presented as part of the Under the Radar + Joe's Pub: In Concert lineup, which will host three music-theatre hybrids.

There are also in-progress showings from the Devised Theatre Working Group, six troupes whose pieces are currently being developed at the Public.

"It is harder and harder and harder to make work in New York City," says Russell. "The pockets of where creative people can live are far flung now." As such, the folks at UTR are "[opening] up these resources that we are lucky enough to have here at the Public."


A recipient of those resources is 600 Highwaymen, made up of husband-wife duo Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone. Their movement piece The Record, containing 45 people, was a New York Times critic's pick when it ran at UTR in 2014. They are coming back in 2016 with Employee of the Year, and the Public has provided funding to develop a new work that will premiere in UTR 2017.

"They're supporting us as artists, not just on a project basis," says Browde. "Systemic support of artists in America doesn't really happen, so we felt really honored and blessed to have their support throughout."

And it goes without saying that the 2014 showing at the Public increased 600 Highwaymen's profile enormously, allowing them to tour Employee of the Year domestically and internationally before its upcoming touchdown in NYC. The show stars five pre-teen girls who take turns portraying one woman in different stages of her life. It may seem incongruous to have an 11-year-old play a grown woman, but according to Browde, that's the point. "There's a gap between the performer and the material, and a gap between that and the audience," she says. "And the goal there is if you don't connect all the dots [as an artist], it gives the audience something to do." She then adds. "I think the show is the most successful when you forget that it's a child."

Between the main program, the Joe's Pub works, and the Devised Theatre Working Group, Public Theater visitors can catch a grand total of 18 shows at UTR 2016. "The core line that goes through all of our festival is, 'Why do theatre now?'" says Russell. "All these works, it's all about risk, about new work. And so we're asking the audience to join in that and to take risk. What I'm guaranteeing is it at least is going to have an integrity of process."

Laughing, he adds, "So if you hate it, there's going to be reasons to hate it."


Follow Diep Tran at @DiepThought. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Maria Baranova. Top photo: A scene from 'Employee of the Year' by 600 Highwaymen.

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