The Under the Radar Theatre Festival Was Pronounced Dead. Here’s How It Was Reborn | Playbill

Off-Broadway News The Under the Radar Theatre Festival Was Pronounced Dead. Here’s How It Was Reborn

Founder Mark Russell on the importance of creating space for experimentation and risk, and how the festival is like Mardi Gras.

Mark Russell Marc J. Franklin

Last spring, Mark Russell was pulled into a meeting with his bosses at the Public Theater. It was the morning of May 15 and Russell thought he was coming in to tell them about the next iteration of the Under the Radar Festival, the experimental theatre event that the Public had presented since 2006. Instead, he was told that the Public was canceling the festival due to economic challengings coming out of the pandemic. “That means I was out of a job,” recalls Russell.

The news came as a shock, both to Russell (the previous UTR in January 2023 had met its ticket sales goals) and to the theatre industry. Immediately, there was an outcry, as alums of the festival and admirers expressed their love for it and their shock at the Public’s decision. Flowers were left at the steps of the theatre. After all, if you could not experiment and try out new, radical ideas at the institution founded by Joseph Papp, where could you? In this economy?

But Russell wasn’t sad about being laid off. Quite the contrary. “I was trying to reinvent Under the Radar anyway. And so this was a throwdown,” he explains. Seeing the outpouring of support and love for UTR, Russell decided it was time to think of a second act for the festival. So he reached out to some friends around town. Like Lincoln Center. And NYU’s Skirball Center. And La MaMa. He teamed up with producer ​​ArKtype. And now UTR has been reborn, as a city-wide theatre event. Seventeen theatres have signed on to present 23 shows as part of the Under the Radar banner—among them the aforementioned theatres, but also the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Soho Rep, the Tank. The festival will take place January 5–21.

To try to describe what makes a show “Under the Radar,” the best way is by example. In 2005, in its first year, UTR presented an in-progress show called Gatz by the theatre company Elevator Repair Service. It was a 6-hour verbatim reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby set in a modern office. It was a meditation on the transformative power of art, literature, and the human imagination (full disclosure: I saw it in 2012 and I can safely say it’s one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had). Gatz then became a hit, toured around the country, came back to New York multiple times, and played internationally. Elevator Repair Service was still performing it up until 2020.

Laurena Allan, Gary Wilmes, Scott Shepherd, Annie McNamara, Kate Scelsa, and Vin Knight in Elevator Repair Service's Gatz Mark Barton

That in a nutshell is what makes a UTR show: small, edgy, inventive, free of commercial pressures, sometimes international, and with a lot of heart. Russell has been a passionate advocate for experimental theatre his entire career and he explains his enduring love as: “I'm really interested in things that have an authenticity to them. That authenticity can be really good drag. It can be really outrageous. But it has to be right. It has to have a heart behind it.”

The programming in this year’s UTR has its share of out-of-the-box work. There’s the return of Public Obscenities, a bilingual family play set in India that premiered Off-Off Broadway last year to much critical acclaim. There’s absurdist reinventions of Hamlet and the Titanic film (though not to be confused with Titanique). There’s an “interactive live art project” about living in a border village between Lebanon and Syria (Cultural Exchange Rate). Many of the shows are affordable—some have pay-what-you-can tickets, others start at $25. There's also free events, like the "Anti-Misogynoir Disco" party at Lincoln Center.

This iteration of UTR operates on a partnership model where the host theatres do a majority of the producing, but Russell and ArKtype provide additional funding and recommendations for shows to include. Or as Russell sums up: “The one thing that Under the Radar could not really do is produce because that meant actually recreating a whole theatre. So we went and partnered with some theaters and found extra money for them, and helped them with the promotion.”

Though over the years, UTR has presented artists that have gone on to become leading players in entertainment (such as Tony winners Daveed Diggs and Rachel Chavkin, Young Jean Lee, Taylor Mac), the festival is dedicated to companies and artists that typical audience members may not have heard of yet. That’s what Russell’s always been proudest of with the festival, that it’s a launchpad for artists who have something to say, who don’t want to make work for 2,000 people a night, who want to create something completely original.

“No, we don't have any TV names in it right now and we never have,” says Russell. “But some people, if they've seen Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s Word Becomes Flesh about 10 years ago, they would have seen Daveed Diggs. So all of this opens up. You're going to run into these artists in the future. These are the artists that are gonna make things that are going to have an effect in the art world, if not larger, in the future. And that's what this is all about.”

In a landscape where the work that gets the biggest budget are things that already come with name recognition built in (such as musicals based on movies), as three to four theatres are shutting down each month around the country—Russell is trying to keep an important part of the theatrical ecosystem alive, the part that still takes risks.

“They're not doing things that naturally attract a lot of people. A sold-out show at Jack [a venue in Brooklyn], that’s 50-60 people a night,” admits Russell. “But some of this work, if it touches one or two people, that's an amazing thing. I believe in the strength of that, and the strength of the New York City artists that are trying to fight it out here. Bring it on.”

As for the future, Russell foresees UTR continuing in this multi-theatre edition for a while. When asked how theatregoers can choose a show to see, Russell declined to provide particular recommendations. But he did give this one piece of advice: “They should maybe just look at the picture on the website and go, ‘Oh, that one looks cool. I'll go to that,’” he says. “This is Mardi Gras for theatre—this is the moment when you can take your shirt off in the street. You're supposed to take a risk.”

Sure, some of the work may not be “fully cooked;” it may even seem confounding. But, as Russell says playfully: “I guarantee you’re gonna have a pretty damn interesting night. You will not be bored. You might even be pissed off. But the next day, you’ll still be thinking about it.”

Learn more about this year’s Under the Radar Festival here.

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