Tours of Force

With the Public behind him, Russell brings in experimental theater troupes from around the world

Mark Russell wants to lay the world at your feet and he only has five days in which to do it. Russell, best known for his long tenure as artistic director of P.S.122, where he booked everyone from Karen Finley to the late Spalding Gray to apparently everyone else, is now in his second year of producing the innovative Under the Radar festival, which will bring 12 performing artists and groups from around the globe to New York from January 19 through 23.

The festival's mission, according to Russell, is to bring experimental touring work to the attention of major regional theaters, many of whom will send representatives to the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Annual Member Conference, which will meet in New York at the same time as the festival. Much more ambitious than last year's, the sophomore edition is distinguished by a greater international focus and the substantial support of the Public Theater, which is providing office space, hosting nearly half the events, and lending its considerable marketing muscle, not to mention the enthusiastic involvement of the Public's highly visible new artistic director, Oskar Eustis. Which is perhaps a little surprising, given that Russell was one of the top competitors for Eustis's post a few months ago. But it turns out Under the Radar falls right in line with Eustis's broader vision for the Public.

"Mark and I had very honestly discussed the possibility of collaboration even when we were both going for this job," says Eustis. "The first thing I did when I became artistic director was approach him about Under the Radar. I have real faith and belief in his vision."

A "full-sensory journey" through South Asia: Ibrahim Quraishi's multimedia work 5 Streams
photo: Ron Kiley
A "full-sensory journey" through South Asia: Ibrahim Quraishi's multimedia work 5 Streams

That vision, honed over more than two decades of scouting and booking new work, has taken Russell all over the world. This year's Under the Radar will offer a sample of what he's seen abroad, including Cia dos Atores (Brazil), Superamas (France/Austria), Kassys (the Netherlands), Yael Farber (South Africa), William Yang (Australia), and the Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental, which will be presenting a group of actors from Colombia. New York–and-Paris-based director Ibrahim Quraishi will offer a "full-sensory journey through the beliefs, mythologies, and cultures of South Asia."

Not surprisingly, given Russell's track record, the festival will cut across a wide swath of aesthetic territory as well, featuring theater works that incorporate dance, multimedia, visual arts, and music. William Yang's Shadowsemploys hundreds of photographic slides. Quraishi's 5 Streams, commissioned by the Asia Society, uses electronic audio, video, and three-dimensional animation. American performer Will Power will present a hip-hop version of Aeschylus's Seven Against Thebes. And bringing groups from so many nations together inspires cultural dialogue. Said Superamas (the group always speaks publicly as a collective), "Our performances are very often built from American cultural phenomenons [sic] like video clips, pop songs, movies, visual artworks.

Under the Radar is for us the confirmation that we don't need those huge gaps between genres and nationalities."

"I think this work could invigorate the American theater a great deal," says Russell. "Ordinarily in the U.S. these kind of shows might get to happen at a very few venues, places like P.S.122 or BAM. They seldom get to tour or get presented at a mainstream venue. But this kind of work—that breaks down walls, that challenges you—really needs to be seen. It's the realcontemporary American theater."

The liberation of such works from their respective "ghettos" is also foremost on Eustis's agenda. "I want Under the Radar to be a sort of shot across the bow in terms of what I plan to accomplish here," he says. "The idea of presenting all different kinds of work is very much an important part of the Public's mission. Joe [Papp, the late founder and artistic director of the Public] mixed disciplines and upset artistic genres. He refused to recognize the sort of Balkanized niche markets people were then accustomed to. On his watch, you had Mabou Mines, A Chorus Line, and the Shakespeare productions all going at the same time. It's that kind of cross-fertilization that's exciting."

The cross-fertilization will also extend across artistic disciplines, as globalFEST, an international music festival now in its third year, will be taking place at the Public on January 21 and 22, overlapping Under the Radar.

While the Public is the main hub of this year's Under the Radar, the event will be taking place all over the city. Other venues include St. Ann's Warehouse (anchor venue for last year's festival), the Kitchen, New York Theatre Workshop, the Asia Society, the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center, and the Kumble Theater, on the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University.

"I hope people will come to Under the Radar and just camp out," says Russell. "I want it to be like a film festival, where people come and see a lot of work in a concentrated time period, hang out, have refreshments, and talk about what they've just seen."

As always, Russell is giving them a lot to talk about.

 
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