P.S.122 and Mark Russell have been so closely identified that when Russell stepped down as artistic director last June after 21 years many wondered what would become of them both. The announcement that former Dublin Fringe director Vallejo Gantner has been named P.S.122’s artistic director has quieted fears about the East Village institution’s future. But what will Russell—one of the city’s most visionary performing arts curators, the man who fostered the careers of John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, and Danny Hoch—do without a venue to program?
Why, program the city, of course. In collaboration with the DUMBO-based Arts at St. Ann’s, Russell is launching Under the Radar: A Festival Tracking New Theater, which debuts January 7 through 10 (for full details visit stannswarehouse.org). In addition to St. Ann’s Warehouse, productions will be staged at the DUMBO Stable, the Performing Garage, and Chashama’s Freight Entrance Theater. The festival will feature what Russell calls a “minestrone soup” of artists, ranging from local favorites like Elevator Repair Service and Cynthia Hopkins, to the Foundry’s first international presentation, K.I. from “Crime” by Muscovites Kama Ginkas and Oksana Mysina.
“We want to put a spotlight on creative work that I myself consider real American theater but that doesn’t fit into the traditional bounds of what most people think of as American theater, with the usual interplay of playwright, designer, director, and so forth,” says Russell. “Our agenda is to wake up people to this work.”
Bogosian calls Russell “a genius at finding the awkward new stuff, the gems and diamonds no one’s noticed yet. If the ‘artist is the antenna of the race,’ then Mark is the antenna of the antenna.”
Given Russell’s fondness for impossible-to-pigeonhole theater, the festival might have just as easily been called Between the Cracks. Bay Area-based artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, for example, combines elements of hip-hop, spoken word, tap, and West African dance in his piece Word Become Flesh. Hopkins’s Accidental Nostalgia is a sort of alt-country one-woman operetta enhanced by Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg’s videoscape. Other groups slated for performance include L.A. performer Herbert Sigüenza, and New York City artists Ethel, Big Dance Theater, and the Civilians.
According to Russell, this more esoteric work is often ghettoized because the creators don’t have access to larger mainstream theaters. To help bring these artists to the attention of major venues, Russell and St. Ann’s will launch Under the Radar as part of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters 48th Annual Members Conference, which will give 3,500 regional bookers from around the country the chance to check them out. The conference, held in New York annually, is the country’s primary showcase for touring performing artists.
Susan Feldman, artistic director of St. Ann’s, where the bulk of Under the Radar will take place, describes the collaboration with Russell as a good fit. “We have similar sensibilities; we’re both committed to presenting new work. We were already presenting Cynthia Hopkins and it just seemed like the Warehouse, with its full staff and large, flexible production space, would be a good location. With St. Ann’s producing muscle and his curatorial vision, this is going to be a great festival.”
That famous vision is already generating excitement about Under the Radar. According to Melanie Joseph, producing artistic director of the Foundry, tickets are almost sold out. “No matter where Mark Russell is, he’s always 10 minutes ahead of the curve, which is the right place to be,” she says. “When he says to see something I always go. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. Though he was P.S.122, he’s now becoming something completely new—an independent curatorial force. He’s becoming a ‘name above the title.’ “