Pity Emily Post. Inside Veselka, the East Village’s venerable Ukrainian restaurant, several diners practiced appalling table manners. Melanie Joseph, artistic director of the Foundry Theatre, snarled at a fellow customer. Foundry co- producer Sunder Ganglani convinced the same customer to scoot over and share her chair. Producer Mark Russell and I reached into each other’s plates when we discovered our pierogi orders had been confused. Whole slices of bread were buttered at once; elbows littered the tabletop.
But when Russell’s Under the Radar festival of theater and performance begins its fourth season this week, Veselka will host an even odder display of etiquette—namely Etiquette, a work by the English company Rotozaza, co-produced by the Foundry Theatre. It’s one of three site-specific projects in this year’s festival: Fellow Brits Stan’s Café will present Of All the People in the World: U.S.A. at the World Financial Center, and the Australian company Back to Back will perform Small Metal Objects at the Whitehall Ferry Terminal. In Of All the People in the World: U.S.A., lab-coated actors fill vitrines with grains of rice symbolizing various statistics. In Small Metal Objects, a cast composed of people considered as having intellectual disabilities perform a play exploring visibility and commercialism. The festival, which offers 14 other theater and performance works, most of them housed at the Public Theater, runs January 9 through 20.
During that week and a half, every half hour from noon to midnight, two people will brave Veselka’s crowds of borscht sippers and kasha chewers to check in at the bar, indicate their preferred language, settle at a window table, and don a pair of headphones. Voices in their ears will then instruct them to speak dramatic lines, execute exaggerated gestures, make ink sketches on their hands, and applaud one another—all amid the restaurant tumult. My critic colleague Jason Zinoman participated in Etiquette during the Edinburgh Fringe and wrote in The New York Times that the piece “erases entirely . . . the line between audience and performer.”
In programming Under the Radar, Russell often looks for just that sort of work—pieces that rethink theater, that collapse boundaries and genres (past festival entries include the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s dinner-theater-inspired No Dice and Elevator Repair Service’s six-hour reading-cum- performance of The Great Gatsby). But though he’d heard raves for Etiquette, Russell had some trepidation about including Rotozaza. He says he dislikes work requiring audience participation: “I hate these things. Hate them. Run screaming from them.” But when he performed Etiquette in Edinburgh in late August, he found himself moved by the intimacy the piece conjures. “I did it with a complete stranger,” Russell recalls, “and afterwards we had to walk around for half an hour together. We felt like we had a relationship. If you’re a romantic like me, it blows your mind.”
In recent years, New Yorkers—romantic or otherwise—haven’t had many opportunities to have their minds blown via site-specific performance. Since the demise of En Garde Arts in 1999, Manhattan has hosted few significant performance works that take place outside the theater. (The Lincoln Center–sponsored Angel Project of 2003 was a notable exception.) Sure, Shakespeareans invade the city’s parks every summer and scavenger hunts roam the East Village, but as the city continues its current cycle of rising costs and renewal, fewer nontraditional spaces make themselves available.
Many site-specific performances rely on unused or abandoned venues, but Russell has bucked that trend, deliberately seeking locations with high visibility and plenty of passerby traffic. The goal: to attract as many people as possible, especially non-theatergoers. “The theater that I’m interested in,” says Russell, “is always trying to shake people’s perceptions . . . about what is a theater. People who’d not be caught dead at the Public Theater—because it’s not a great use of their money, they wouldn’t know how to act, whatever—suddenly they’re in a place where theater confronts them.” In securing spaces for Under the Radar’s offsite works, Russell has had to contend with all manner of “special permissions, special permits, security permits,” but has encountered “no major hassles—yet.”
Tom Birchard, Veselka’s owner, has smoothed (or perhaps “greased”) this process. Citing a long relationship with Russell and the Foundry, which rents office space from him, he’s cheerfully contributed one of Veselka’s most in-demand tables—and might add another if audiences require it. He’s even designing an Etiquette sampler, “a pierogi or two, some cabbage,” for participants to nosh on while they wait for their slot. Birchard looks forward to sampling Etiquette himself during a preview session for Veselka workers. “A lot of my waitstaff are actors or artists,” he says. “It makes me look hip and cool that I’m supporting a theatrical venture.”
Rotozaza’s Anton Hampton, one of Etiquette‘s co-creators, already considers Veselka pretty cool. Hampton has counted himself a fan of the diner (particularly its borscht) since he frequented it during a run of Five in the Morning and Doublethink at P.S.122 last spring. While sipping a whipped-creamy mug of hot chocolate, he looks around the restaurant and considers its suitability. Previously, Rotozaza has placed Etiquette in theater cafés or lobbies; Veselka will be its first space unaffiliated with a playhouse. “It’s going to be a challenge to make sure it’s set up right,” he says. He doesn’t want the participants to feel too self-conscious or suffer any pestering. “It’s not about being watched. It’s not about being listened to,” says Hampton. He trusts that the downtown crowd Veselka attracts may express curiosity about the performance but will leave the performers alone. In order for the piece to work, the participants often have to forget their surroundings and focus only on each other.
Russell, who mounts Under the Radar while the Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference is in town, hopes that national and international producers will focus on Etiquette—and that other theater artists will, too. Perhaps they’ll see it as an invitation to follow Rotozaza’s lead and step away from the proscenium arch. He cites Etiquette, Small Metal Objects, and Of All the People in the World: U.S.A. as “exemplary site-specific pieces . . . I hope the artists of New York will see and be inspired.” At its best, site-specific work has the power not only to prompt a reconsideration of what theater is, but also to transfigure a familiar space. The slick efficiency of the Whitehall terminal or the anonymous glossiness of the World Financial Center—maybe even the genial hubbub of Veselka—might seem transformed once one has witnessed or shared in a performance there.
The Foundry must also desire such a result. They first made their name with W. David Hancock’s The Convention of Cartography, which played at a gallery in Chelsea in 1994. They’ll next attempt Aaron Landsman’s Open House, which will appear in 30 living rooms around the city beginning February 9. Ganglani, the Foundry member who has helped scout locales, says: “We’re in walk-downs in the very tip of Bensonhurst and penthouses across the street from the Metropolitan Museum. We’ll see what the hell happens.” We’ll also see what the hell happens this week when Under the Radar exposes the bustle and scurry of Veselka to avant-garde performance. One consolation: If all doesn’t go according to plan, at least there’s comfort food quite close by.