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Living Under the Radar

The prominent theatre festival returns for another year

For a city that boasts hundreds of theatrical productions each year, it stands to reason that New York should also host multiple theatre festivals. From Fringe NYC to Midtown International Theatre Festival to Brits Off Broadway at 59E59, there are always opportunities to check out edgy, underground, or international shows that might never play here otherwise.

But even in this crowded field, the carefully curated Under the Radar festival—co-produced by The Public Theater, Mark Russell, and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters—stands out.

“We focus on independent theatre from around the world and the U.S.,” says Russell, who has been with the festival for all of its eight years. “This is theatre that is made to tour and to move around. It’s contemporary artists who are trying to make a statement about what theatre is now and connect with an audience.”

Among this year’s artists are downtown theatre legend Judith Malina (in the one-night-only The Plot Is the Revolution) and The Builders Association, which presents its theatrical re-envisioning of Susan Sontag’s journals. (The festival runs from January 4-15. Full details can be found at the festival’s website)

“This is a pretty brainy year,” Russell says, and he attributes part of the rise in “smart theatre” to the economic downturn, which seems to have prompted shoestring-budgeted, politically conscious shows. “Maybe one of the reasons is when a certain oppression happens, [theatre is] where these marginalized voices go. You want to feel connected to people. I think people are really hungry for a more visceral connection with people.”

To boost promising artists who are still getting established, Under the Radar offers support called Finishing Funds. One of this year’s recipients is Goodbar (pictured above), which transforms Judith Rossner’s bestselling 1975 novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar into a glam-punk music-theatre experience.

Mark Russell

“Instead of commissioning things, we give them finishing money,” Russell explains. “So we’ve given Goodbar just a little money to get the work to the level of Under the Radar. Many of the works have been workshopped before, but they need that extra mile for the Public Theater’s audience.”

Goodbar, a Waterwell production, had been performed on the first Monday of every month for six or seven months by the time the company received the additional support. Those workshops were “great, because we were able to risk big content changes,” says Tom Ridgely, who co-directs with Arian Moayed. “But there were a lot of design changes that we wanted to make but couldn’t until we got some money. You gotta hand it to Mark: He saw the potential and was able to give us the funds to get the show to where it needed to be all along.”

Of course, planning and coordinating can only create part of a festival’s magic. “We are waiting now for that combustion from the audience,” Russell says. “All I have left is the worrying part. So in some ways, this moment, before we’ve seen anything, it’s pure and perfect. Best festival ever! Conceptually, the best festival ever!”

Mark Peikert is the theatre critic for NYPress.com

Photo of “Goodbar” by Hassan E. Hussein. Photo of Mark Russell by Steve and Anita Shevett

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