Asked a few years back about what new music she listens to, Patti Smith replied that “the new people are the unknown people,” casting her vote with rock ‘n’ roll not yet created. For this critic, that’s what makes winter the most exciting time in New York’s theatrical season. January, especially, belongs to the local pursuit of the new. Not to carefully developed scripts or ornate revivals of time-honored works. Not to the familiar domestic forms we see all year long. Not to refined craft of acting or dramatic writing. This is the time for unleashing potential for theater’s future: a messy process, full of false starts and disappointments, experiments gone horribly wrong, bad ideas taken too far or not far enough.
Specifically, this takes the form of five festivals (and counting), each spotlighting the latest work from the progressive companies and artists whose innovations are the lifeblood of the city’s live-arts scene. (They also feature new work from elsewhere.) Much of the work is genre-bending — or, in artists’ parlance, “transdisciplinary.” For spectators, the fun lies in the abundance of shows: If you’re seeing three one-hour shows all around town on a Saturday, it doesn’t much matter if one of them tanks; get a drink, do a postmortem with your friends, and move on to the next one.
Two festivals in particular are crucibles of the new. American Realness (Abrons Arts Center, January 8–18, americanrealness.com) has carved out a distinctive identity by bringing choreography and experimentation into play with powerful cultural commentary. This year’s lineup includes the Bulgarian legend Ivo Dimchev’s sexy curatorial fantasy Fest; Cynthia Hopkins’s artistic autobiography A Living Documentary; Jack Ferver’s Night Light Bright Light (inspired by the oeuvre of dancer and choreographer Fred Herko); and the collective My Barbarian’s remake of Bertolt Brecht’s The Mother. Neal Medlyn’s Pop Star Series will pay tribute to Lionel Richie, Prince, Insane Clown Posse, and other songsters, and the beguiling Dynasty Handbag will offer her neo-Homeric video odyssey Soggy Glasses.
The four-day festival Special Effects (The Wild Project, January 8-11, sfx.contemporaryperformance.com) is artist-driven and -curated, with more of a pop-up vibe. Look for nightly performance parties in the bar, serious critical forums, and walks on the wilder side of live acts. This year will include a radical healing show by Colin Self; Heather Litteer’s performative interviews of downtown female legends; and Asking for It, an undressed evening exposing the culture of rape jokes, by Adrienne Truscott of the Wau Wau Sisters.
The hub of these downtown festivals remains Under the Radar (Public Theater, January 7–18, publictheater.org). UTR will launch eight “devised theater” works-in-progress in the festival’s INCOMING! Series. Audiences can also expect rare glimpses of major foreign artists, an area where New York is normally deficient: Iran’s Mehr Theatre Group will look at its members’ lives in Timeloss; Argentina’s Mariano Pensotti directs Cineastas, a filmic Buenos Aires epic; and Brazilian director-playwright Leonardo Moreira explores memory and narrative in O Jardim. Also on the docket: The Birmingham, U.K., company Stan’s Café presents The Cardinals, about evangelicals performing religious history; Daniel Fish lobs directorial tennis balls at David Foster Wallace in A Supposedly Fun Thing…; and Taylor Mac enchants with a marathon performance of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.
Not to be overlooked is Prototype (HERE, January 8–17, prototypefestival.org), the festival of new music-theater works, and Performance Space 122’s COIL festival (P.S.122, January 1–31, ps122.org/coil-2015), which boasts four theater shows, including Mike Iverson’s dystopian musical Sorry Robot and Temporary Distortion’s six-hour durational performance in a soundproof installation structure (My Voice Has an Echo in It). If all this proves too much to organize, check out the Contemporary Performance Network’s free PFORM app, which helps you keep your theater adventure together.