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What Does It Mean to Be “Under the Radar?” A popular theatre festival resists categorization
By MARK BLANKENSHIP

If you’re seeing shows at this year’s Under the Radar festival and you happen to notice a theme, then please let Mark Russell know. Sure, he’s the artistic director and producer of this annual round-up of new theatre, co-presented by the Public, but he never curates around a particular idea.

“Sometimes I don’t find out how these shows are connecting to each other until I’m talking to people in the bar,” Russell says. “A lot of curators would be appalled by that, but that’s what I’m interested in. If I knew what I wanted to say going into this festival, it wouldn’t be interesting.”

Since it was founded in 2005, the festival has made its reputation by presenting a diverse slate of underground artists from around the world. Audiences are as likely to see a four hour experimental piece in an abandoned warehouse as a traditional play in a traditional theatre. (This year’s slate runs from January 6-17.)

This year’s artists include Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theater Company, who’s genre-bending Chekhov Lizardbrain (pictured above) follows a lonely botanist’s attempt to make sense of his life; Britain’s Cloud Ensemble, who are teaming with veteran New York performance artist Peggy Shaw for the mulitimedia piece MUST the inside story; and Ireland’s Brokentalkers, whose song cycle Silver Stars tells true stories of gay men seeking a place in the world.

If there is an organizing principle to Under the Radar, it may be Russell’s desire to keep its roster as diverse and challenging as possible. He spends most of the year seeing, reading, and talking about new theatre, and he tries to present whatever instinctively strikes him as being truthful. He can’t precisely define what “truthful” means, but he says it usually involves shows that explore “the integrity of the moment,” that use innovative stagecraft to make live performance feel immediate and exciting.

When he finds something he wants to present, Russell often breaks the festival’s rules. For instance, he mostly stages material that hasn’t been seen in New York, but this year, he’s bringing back several productions that have had short Off Broadway runs, including “Chautauqua!”, a playful spin on the 19th-century lecture circuit by The National Theater of the United States of America. “I feel like more people should get to see it,” Russell says.

Meanwhile, though Under the Radar is generally created to support new and emerging artists, Russell perennially makes room for well-known avant garders. This year, Anne Bogart’s celebrated SITI Company will collaborate with playwright Charles L. Mee and dancers from the Martha Graham Company for a piece called American Document, and despite their reputations, Russell says they’re perfect for the festival.

“In a sense, even Anne Bogart is a little under the radar,” he says. “She’s not the household name that she deserves to be.”

He adds that better-known artists may validate newcomers in the eyes of ticket buyers. “It helps to include a few leaders,” he says. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘You don’t know this one. They just came in from France, but they’re on the same level as Anne Bogart. Take a chance.’”

Programming-wise, Russell himself has been taking more chances than usual. The festival is presenting nineteen shows this year, its largest-ever lineup, and on January 16 and 17, it will sponsor the first New York incarnation of Devoted and Disgruntled, a free-for-all discussion about the state of the theatre that has been active for years in the U.K.

Expanding your repertoire—and thus, your costs— is counterintuitive right now, but Russell is enthusiastic about the growth. “I guess that could be the theme,” he says. “That’s what the festival is saying to me. It’s saying, ‘There’s a wealth of good work out there, even in these hard times.’

For a complete schedule of Under the Radar performances, please go here

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Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor