Mark Russell would not achieve great success in a one-man show—he’s far too self-effacing to relish a lone turn in the spotlight. But as both the former artistic director of P.S.122 and the current head of Under the Radar, the theater festival about to enjoy its fifth year, Russell has supported a remarkable array of solo performers, among them John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Danny Hoch, Karen Finley, Sarah Jones, Anne Magnuson, and Mike Daisey (whose How Theater Failed America played the 2008 festival). This year’s UTR, which runs from January 7 to 18 at the Public Theater and a few partner venues, features an unusual number of shows with a solo speaker: seven out of 18, though that count includes Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s The Break/s: A Mixtape for the Stage, which features a dancer and DJ, and Corey Dargel’s Removable Parts, which includes an occasional tart response from his accompanist.
Though Russell boasts a long and thriving relationship with solo performance, he confesses an ambivalence toward the form. “I always try to avoid one-person shows,” he says—he’s surprised and “kind of embarrassed” to discover just how many he’s programmed in this year’s festival. Yet he has ensured plenty of variety within the genre: Little commonality exists between Gare St. Lazare’s adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s First Love; Bamuthi Joseph’s dance-driven monologue; Lee Breuer’s puppet plays Summa Dramatica and Porco Morto; Dargel’s ballads concerning elective amputation; Jim Fletcher’s performance of Tim Etchell’s orgy of declarative sentences, Sight Is the Sense That Dying People Tend to Lose First; and Lemon Andersen’s confessional County of Kings: The Beautiful Struggle, in which he invites audiences to “watch me deal with ridicule and shame . . . by turning myself into the king of poetry spit fame.”
Russell insists that his decision to program so many solo shows owes to the aesthetic rather than the economic—yet one-person plays do skew toward the budget-friendly. In How Theater Failed America, Daisey joked that he gets many of his gigs when a planned show collapses and the artistic directors need to fill a season slot with a fast, cheap option. (In fact, two of the UTR solos were late additions, though Russell won’t say which ones.) In the next few years, a decreased funding climate will likely mean that theaters produce more of them: “The solo form,” admits Russell, “is one way to keep theater alive during an economic meltdown.” (UTR, as well as Here’s Culturemart and the Coil Festival at P.S.122, is pegged to the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters—producers and artistic directors who shop the festivals looking for pieces to bring to their theaters.)
Yet one-person shows have advantages beyond cost-efficiency, according to Russell. They can offer the first exposure to new talents who don’t yet “have the sophistication or the means to make a group piece.” And solo shows, he says, “continue to be one of the most direct lines to an artist’s heart, and get at the primal essence of the theater—someone in front of a few [people] telling their story. I am constantly seduced by the pure magic of that formula.”
Nevertheless, Russell suggests that future UTRs will increasingly focus on group work—and even this year’s festival boasts several examples, such as 3 Years, 8 Months, 20 Days from a Cambodian company; LIGA, 50% Reward & 50% Punishment by Dutch collective Kassys; and Architecting by Americans the TEAM. “I still think the future will be in groups of artists creating works together,” says Russell. “Maybe this meltdown will have that effect. It will bring us closer together to make works together and tell even larger stories.”