A Festival that Shape-shifted to Stay Alive: Interview with Mark Russell

By Stefanie Carp*

The curator and artistic director Mark Russell founded the experimental performing arts festival Under the Radar in 2005. Its first edition was held at St. Ann’s Warehouse. In 2006, it moved to the Public Theatre with its many different-sized stages, Lobby and Bar. The Festival hosted nonmainstream American performing arts as well as international experimental theatre. As every January the huge international Presenter and Producer conference convene in New York City, and the festival performances can be seen by all these professionals.

Mark Russell, the founder of Under the Radar Festival. Photo: Vincent Tullo, for The New York Times, Courtesy of Mark Russell

Many artists have been discovered through Under the Radar: Richard Maxwell, Elevator Repair Service, Young Jean Lee, 600 Highway Men, Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. All of them were at some point invited to European and other international theatres and festivals. It is hard and often impossible for performing artists who are far away from the mainstream to make a mid-career artist’s life in a country where culture and especially theatre art is not subsidized. Other festivals started to come up parallel with Under the Radar. Like, the very important dance-orientated festival American Realness, the curated Coil Festival in Performance Space 122, and later the Prototype Festival, which shows contemporary opera on a small scale. Some of them ended after several years. The Prototype Festival survived.

On May 15, 2023, Mark Russell was informed that the Public Theatre and its artistic director Oskar Eustis had decided to cancel the Under the Radar Festival. Russell, after absorbing this news, traveled on an already planned trip to Brussels, seeing shows at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, still in shock. The cancellation was officially announced in the New York Times in early June. The New York theatre community, the audiences and the artists were shocked and furious. Six weeks later, UTR announced that they would come back in January 2024 without the Public. What had happened?

In an astonishing act of solidarity, all off and off off theatres and an inventive producer had joined forces with Mark Russell to save this festival.

Stefanie Carp: The Under the Radar festival was cancelled in May 2023 and relaunched within six weeks. How did you do that?

Mark Russell: On May 15th I walked out of there, first in shock a bit. The decision was made because of money and their own problems. It became harder and harder to work at the Public. It is a big institution, that is really dedicated to producing, and I am essentially a presenter. I know that it was hard choice for Oskar. The first thing we did was call everybody we had promised to be in the program to tell them that it was not going to happen. And then I suddenly felt lighter. I did not have to deal with he politics of a big organization anymore. There were many things I wanted to do with the festival. I wanted to find another way to maybe do it. I was able to design my own program book, to design my own website. If I would have done that with the Public it would have required thousands of meetings. So that thought was refreshing.

When I returned to NYC there was a group of friends who said: come to this downtown bar. When I arrived they were all there. There was Tommy Kriegsmann with ArKtype, Shanta Thake from Lincoln Center,  Meiyin Wang from Perleman Performing Arts Center, Jay Wegman from Skirball, there was Vallejo Gantner.  And they asked: What do you want us to do? What do you need?

From 2006 to 2022 the Public Theatre hosted Under the Radar Festival. Photo: Web/Wikemedia/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

I said: I did 17 good years, that is a lot. And they said: Honestly, we are here to make something happen.

There were already a few ideas and so we started. Jay Wegman, who is running the Skirball Center said: “Whatever you want to do Mark, the Skirball is yours.” He is amazing. But also many other institutions came up with an offer.

I had seen some work in the past season I was very excited about and wanted to  feature in the festival program, like this Nile Harris piece: This House is not a Home. It deserved a wider audience. When I was in Manchester (Manchester International Festival) in early July I ran into a colleague, Jon Nakagawa, from Lincoln Center. I have known him for a long time but we have never worked together. He was interested in bringing a particular Irish show. (The First Bad Man, by PanPanTheater) and I said I have two other productions from UK that come with subsidy which I can bring to the table. So suddenly we had a place at Lincoln Center. We knew we were going to do something with the Japan Society. They always  participated in the Festival. I trusted their taste. And that was always paid by their funding. We knew we wanted Festival Academy to hold one of their  “Atelier.” during the festival There is a group called The International Presenters Commons, they are trying to keep the doors open for international work in the U.S. They focused on the Symposium, which has been the core of the festival since the beginning of UTR. Finally, Tommy Kriegsman came along and asked: Mark do you want to do this? Do you want me to produce the festival with my production company ArKtype? I did not have a dime at that moment, but Tommy believed and took the risk.

The logo of Under the Radar Festival, founded by Mark Russell in 2005. Photo: Web/Wikimedia/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The program was brought and hosted by the different institutions partly suggested by you and partly by them?

At some places, it was their invitation or production, at others like As You Like It by Cliff Cardinal, I wanted that to come and fortunately, Jay had seen it in Montreal and he was very excited about it. So that was the one we focused on together for Skirball. I proposed a piece by Motus Theatre to La MaMa. The Nile Harris piece, I saw in late June. We started talking and decided to remount it and found some production money for him. So, there are some people I am assisting with extra funds. Each is in fact produced by our partner theaters. That means there is no box office, no income for UTR, except what I can raise. But for the most part, the venues are handling all the infrastructure, the technical. What they need is our brand to bring it to a wider audience.

You said you did not have a dime. But some money you could find in this short time?

We used different ways to raise money, One was crowd funding through the internet. I turned to a few individuals and foundations and we began to put together enough money to make it happen. I felt, I can do this if I had 150000 dollars. It would just be the budget for making a website and engaging a publicist. We had great success with raising money and went past that goal.The team came together quickly. That was kind of exciting. How that grows or does not grow, what is next year? That is a whole other question. It is very risky. For this year we made it with 400000 dollars. That is not enough, but still a lot. As a next step, if we have a future, Tommy with his production company will build a financial nonprofit structure with a board etc.

So, the festival is going all over NYC. What did you win, what did you lose?

What we lost is the central location. That is a loss. Normally I would be hanging out at the Public and you would meet me there, most performances would happen there, and most social activities. But we have a couple of Hubs, one in Brooklyn with BRIC, “The invisible dog,” The Theatre for A New Audience. One at Lincoln Center, and one in the East Village with La MaMa and the Skirball Center. This decentralized concept opened up llike Theatre for A New Audience, who would have never considered talking to us. They were planning to remount a wonderful show, that I had seen last season at Soho Rep, Public Obscenities by Shayok Misha Chowdhury, one of the best shows I had seen recently, and give it  another run. St Anne`s was first hesitating. But then Susan Feldman saw something in Ireland, she really fell in love with, but did not know how to frame it for her audience. That became Vulcano in our program. It is almost sold out. So that spirit: everybody can make something happen and they do not lose their own profile works.

La MaMa: one of the hubs of Under the Radar Festival. Photo: Web/Wikipedia/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

How do you feel about this multi-curation from different sides? This collaboration feels like a utopian concept for the future.

I am now the festival director, not its main curator. So, I am taking a step back from being able to curate the whole thing.  I am an  old white guy, my own performance is over. We are a communication center (Tommy Kriegsmann and I) for all of these people, who all have different structures in their organizations. LaMaMa has nothing to do with Lincoln Center, Lincoln Center has no direct connection with the Japan Society.

We are bringing them all together and they are all  benefiting from this collaboration. I saw LaMaMa people uptown in Lincoln Center at the performance Queens of Shiba. If we can help to make this communication happen, that’s great. Some of the shows that came this way into the program would not be my first choice for UTR, but they fit.

I try to keep a hard edge on the program, so that it is not getting too slack, and keeps its quality, so, I have to be in a relationship with all these curators. That will be an interesting challenge. Hopefully, we can raise enough money, so that we can say: take this vent and we will pay for half of it. For the Festival audience, it is more difficult, because we have 17 box offices. There is not a  way to get that all to one place, where you can order your tickets. We don t have a festival office of course. I work on my kitchen table. Tommy has an office. Akktype is our structure.

For more visit: https://www.arktype.org

Did the audiences and the theatre artist community react when Under The Radar was cancelled?

The reaction of the community was very touching. It was  not about me. They made a shrine on the steps of the Public, with flowers and candles and letters and Manifestos. They published talks online and took pictures. I did not realize that they were that connected to the festival. But they are. It is an interesting audience, they don’t have money, they are young, they are interested in these adventurous ideas. So possibly that is why the Public thought they could just toss this off. We have a small audience, that comes from around New York, a diverse, Latino and Black audience and an artist-audience.

What did UTR stand for?

I am interested in intimate theatre, pieces that New York would not necessarily get to see without the context of our international festival. New York used to be a funkier place. We did not have all these Skyscrapers, all these Super Rich Chinese and Russians buying apartments. There were places where we could make that intimate, experimental theatre happen. I feel a bit nostalgic for that New York spirit of we can do everything, give me a space, this punk attitude, a very Beatnik attitude of let’s mix. That’s a very American way. Unfortunately, we have been sort of pushed out of Manhattan. Now most people live in Brooklyn or Queens or farther out, or are moving to Philadelphia. I suddenly realized when we did Under the Radar last year: that this is almost a fantasy land of New York theatre. It is how it used to be, when everyone was going to see five things in a night and ending up at 8BC and dancing, and the Club scene and the fashion scene, the theatre scene, the music scene and the diverse cultural scene were cross fertilizing. That was from the seventies into the nineties. It was a rich time. Now it is harder to pull that together. But UTR can do that and keep that energy going. And if you had not come here, you would have missed for example Public Obscenities. Because it was in a tiny house with 70 seats. Now they are playing in a 300-seat house and the audience who read about it in the spring can see it now. UTR is a bit of a New York showcase. Many New York Artists have been discovered here in the last years as well as international artists, many were invited to the European Festivals, Asia, and Australia. The people of New York felt that this festival that connected the U.S. theater scene with the rest of the world was important to our ecology and that it had to go on.

*Stefanie Carp grew up in Hamburg and studied German Philology, Philosophy and Theatre History in West Berlin. After completing her PhD, she started to work as a dramaturg in different theatres in Düsseldorf, Basel, Hamburg, Berlin and Zürich. For many years, she was the close dramaturgical collaborator of the artist Christoph Marthaler and the set designer Anna Viebrock. In 2000, all three took over the artistic direction of the Zurich Schauspielhaus. After Zurich and two years as Chief Dramaturg at the Volksbühne in Berlin, Stefanie Carp accepted an offer from the Vienna Festival as artistic director of the international theatre program. From 2018 to 2020, she was the artistic director of the Festival Ruhrtriennale. Since 2020, she has worked as an advisor for the international program of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival.

Copyright © 2024 Stefanie Carp
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