The Public Theater has announced that it is putting its Under the Radar Festival on hold. The Festival has been held annually since 2006 (aside from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown). The Festival programmed experimental work, including works from international creators, Off-Off Broadway companies, and emerging artists. The reason cited was financial, according to a statement that Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis provided to the New York Times.
“It’s entirely a financial decision,” said Eustis. “This does not mean the Public is abandoning its relationship with downtown experimental artists, but we’re going to be looking for a new way of embodying that.” Though the New York Times write-up gave the impression that the festival was entirely cancelled, a spokesperson from the Public clarified to Playbill that UTR was not being shuttered and was being placed on an "extended hiatus."
In its 18-year history, the festival has programmed 229 companies from 42 countries. And the works featured in UTR have gone on to tour around the country and internationally. It’s where artists such as Young Jean Lee, Daniel Fish, and Taylor Mac presented their most avant-garde work. The festival also programmed respected companies such as Elevator Repair Service, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Belarus Free Theatre, Waterwell, 600 Highwaymen, and Pig Iron Theater Company.
This decision was met with dismay from New York City’s theatrical community. Writes Meiyin Wang, the former director of UTR, in a Facebook post: “It was never a model that could clear pure financial decisions, but what artistic model really can? But UTR grew. It grew into a place where people gathered, and found each other and took them to new places to find other people…For now I grieve.”
The cancellation of the 2024 edition of UTR comes at the heels of a disturbing new trend of theatrical institutions shuttering their new work creation arms. In years past in New York City, there was a variety of theatre festivals in the month of January, including Under the Radar, the Exponential Festival (for emerging artists), COIL (for experimental work), American Realness (for dance), and Prototype (for music theatre and opera). These festivals were timed to the Association of Performing Arts Professionals' annual conference in NYC, also held in January. Representatives from theatrical venues around the country would come to the city, see those shows, and program the shows at their own venues. It was a way for artists who operated outside of the mainstream to be produced and to be seen.
But in recent years, the festival offerings in NYC have started contracting. The performance venue P.S. 122 canceled the COIL Festival in 2018, and the independently produced American Realness did not return after the pandemic. In true counter-culture style, when you visit AmericanRealness.com, the homepage has the phrase “American Realness is dead. Love live American Realness” in all caps.
As New York Times critic Jason Zinoman writes on Twitter, “Looking over the shows I've seen at Under the Radar and the catastrophe of its ending comes into focus. It’s not just the large quantity of great artists. It's that these were the types who would be ignored. Who will now be ignored. We won't know what we’re missing.”
It’s clear that with the recession and rising costs of raw materials and labor, it has become more difficult in recent years to produce new work that is not based on any pre-existing content, especially experimental work. The cancellations of these various January festivals have also been part of a concerning trend, where institutions that specialize in new, original creations are shuttering. In NYC, Lark Play Development Center, which supported playwrights trying to create new work, closed its doors in 2021 after 27 years. Then the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky was canceled in 2022, after 45 years of giving up-and-coming playwrights full productions of their plays (that festival said it was going on a hiatus but has not announced any plans to resume).
The fact that there are now fewer places to create new work is not lost on NYC’s artist community. Writes playwright David Adjmi on Twitter, “There is no longer a robust avant-garde in NYC theatre, which is a giant problem for anyone who cares about the form.”