By Alexis Soloski
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For years, Mark Russell and Meiyin Wang, the co-curators of the Under the Radar festival, worked in a ridiculously cramped office. Seated at desks just a few feet from each other, they could look up from an email or conference call to smile, to roll their eyes, to grimace.
It's a little trickier now that those desks sit 3,800 miles apart.
Over the summer, Russell moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, while Wang remains in New York. "Because of the distance and time difference, communicating something that would have taken a look needs to be articulated," Russell explains, in a conference room at the Public Theater. "Thank God there's this thing called Google Hangouts."
UTR, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, stands as perhaps New York's most eclectic, breathless, and exhilarating festival of performance. Running for a week and a half every January at the Public Theater and partner venues, it combines hometown favorites with foreign icons. This iteration, for example, which begins January 8, mixes locals like 600 Highwaymen and Edgar Oliver with the Belgian troupe tg STAN and the Argentinian artist Lola Arias.
Russell started UTR shortly after leaving his job of 20 years as artistic director of P.S. 122. A man of "vision and unflashy ambition," according to the writer-director Tim Crouch, Russell wanted experimental local companies to be able to reap the rewards (spatial, financial) of regional and international theaters. So he conceived a festival that would run in tandem with the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. (It has since inspired a panoply of overlapping January festivals — COIL, Other Forces, American Realness, etc.) In an email, Crouch, who has brought two shows to UTR from England, recalls those early days as offering "not much money, but a really good tote bag — and limitless goodwill."
Since its first years, UTR has helped to launch the careers of several local artists and companies, like Tarell Alvin McCraney and Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Nature Theater's Kelly Copper credits the festival with introducing her company to "the people who have supported, commissioned, and presented our work in Europe for the last seven years." UTR has itself become more international, familiarizing New Yorkers with artists from many a continent, though visa troubles scuppered a Cambodian troupe and Antarctica has yet to be represented.
Wang has worked for the festival since its second year. She and Russell make a visually dissonant pair. He's rumpled, graying, and cheerful. She's sleek, half his age, and more self-contained. Their taste, they say, differs, too. "I love physical theater where people roll around on each other," says Russell. "She can't stand that."
They attribute UTR's provocative programming to these aesthetic differences and overlaps even as they say they invariably make errors in curation, such as failing to provide adequate context for a work or struggling with how to help artists relax and enjoy the experience. And they have programmed some flops, which they don't seem to mind. "If we're not making mistakes, we're not doing our job," Russell says. "This year is going to be more ragged and more adventurous than others."
"We would be in trouble if everybody liked everything," adds Wang.
Trying to co-curate such a jauntily eccentric festival from across an ocean would seem difficult, but Russell and Wang claim to have grown skilled at programming transatlantically, helped in part by Russell's frequent visits. "He's back all the time," Wang wails in mock complaint. (It helps that he brings chocolate.) But they may soon find themselves at adjoining desks again. As much as Russell enjoys Switzerland ("Everything works. Everything runs on exact time. And the chocolate is amazing"), he is already plotting his return to Manhattan: "I miss New York like it's a part of my body."