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Wait, Wait… Don't Tell Me Surprise is Key at the Undergroundzero Festival
By MARK BLANKENSHIP

Paul Bargetto doesn't want to know about the work he's producing this summer. As the curator of the Undergroundzero Festival, whose third season of experimental shows runs through July 26 at P.S. 122, he prefers to walk into a performance and be just as surprised as the audience.

That's an unusual approach, since most theater festivals choose their slate after vetting hundreds of scripts and videos. At Undergroundzero there's hardly even an application process. Instead, Bargetto, a director in the off-off Broadway scene, reaches out to artists he likes and offers them a festival slot, or artists call him and ask if they can participate. Often, they don't even start working on a show until after they've been invited.

"A lot of festivals have themes, which I've always thought does a disservice to the artist," Bargetto says. "You tend to write things just to fit into a pre-existing niche. What's great with us, with the fact that we support artists instead of particular projects, is that artists tend to create things they are really passionate about. No one ever says, 'Make whatever you want,' and there's a great liberty in that."

Undergroundzero provides a performance space and marketing support, but otherwise, the fest lets artists run free. Recently, Bargetto got a call from playwright Eliza Bent, who said she wanted to adapt a short story by the British author Hari Kunzru. She wasn't sure how she was going to do it, but Bargetto decided the idea was interesting enough to support. The result was She of the Voice, a drama that played the festival in early July. (There are ten shows opening between July 11 and July 23. Most tickets are $15.)

"I know I'm taking a chance that these artists might not deliver," Bargetto says. "They might make something terrible, and we've had some projects in the past that didn't work. But that's a risk I'm willing to take." Asked why he embraces that risk, he says, "I think it's because I'm an artist myself, and I know that sitting down to write a proposal about some project that you might hypothetically do just feels like a lie. When you have to do that, you've already taken two or three steps towards compromise."

Bargetto's approach can certainly pay off. In 2007, Undergroundzero presented Michael Yates Crowley's solo show  The Ted Haggard Monologues, which explores the Evangelical minister's scandalous fall. After winning a festival prize, it received a full production from festival co-presenter Collective:Unconscious. It was eventually filmed by HBO and presented in Germany.

Crowley returns this summer with  Evanston: A Rare Comedy, about a book club meeting gone horribly wrong. Running July 14-17, it's arguably one of the festival's sure bets, underscoring that while he gives them leeway, Bargetto only backs artists who have proven themselves in other places.

 It's worth noting, too, that every season of Undergroundzero has featured at least one remount. "Many interesting, great shows only have one shot, and then they're never seen again," Bargetto says, so he invites select theater companies to bring their work back at the festival. This year, South Wing Theater Company will revive AOI!  (pronounced "OW-ee"), a new spin on a Japanese Noh drama that plays through July 12.

 Nothing would be staged, of course, if the festival didn't have a home, and after last year, it almost didn't. When a sewer pipe burst at the Collective:Unconscious space on Chuch Street, every artist connected to the theater company was suddenly adrift. (P.S. 122 struck a rental deal with Undergroundzero for this year's performances.)

 But as nerve-racking as it can be, Bargetto says that nomadism may actually help the festival fulfill its mission to support experimental artists. "Of course it would be great to have a permanent space, but it's hard for me to imagine. As an artist, I've always been itinerant," he says. "You start to lose a bit of your liberty if you stay somewhere too long. Right now, we aren't beholden to anyone. We don't owe anybody anything, and that makes it easier to keep taking risks."

 He continues, "That's fitting for us, because I think art should always be on the outside. It should come into a place for a moment and stay long enough to challenge your perceptions."
Author: Mark Blankenship
Mark Blankenship has written for The New York Times, Variety, The Village Voice, and many others. He also edits The Critical Condition, an award-winning pop-culture criticism blog. (www.thecriticalcondition.com)