How The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival Helps Emerging Artists Get Seen

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For the 14th year in a row, The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival will present groundbreaking works of theater from around the world over the course of 12 days. Beginning Jan. 4, UTR will produce an astounding 105 performances—all of which have been curated by the festival’s founder and director, Mark Russell. Russell spoke with Backstage about the impetus to create a space for emerging and subversive theater artists, and his advice for artists new to the industry to get seen.

For those who may not know, what is Under the Radar?
Under the Radar is a theater festival in the European mold of a festival. It is a complete celebration of theater. In this case, it’s independent, small-scale theater. Our largest house is, like, 300 seats. We don’t have that many themes in the festival, but our main [objective] is, why do theater now? Each of our folks sort of answers that in their own way. It’s a really lively, international film festival.

What was your initial inspiration for Under the Radar?
I noticed—and a lot of people were noticing—that the main American theater, which is all these regional theaters, was not recognizing a lot of the people who were making work “downtown.” I felt that those people making that theater, which toured mostly into small presenting houses, were making some really great theater. I wanted to get the two to mix, so I got some money to do a symposium, a two-day talk about it. But instead of doing a two-day talk, I decided to make the breakout sessions theater pieces so everybody got to see the same theater piece and I included professors of theater and presenters of theater. They had a complete culture clash, actually, in the way they think of working with artists. It was eye-opening and a lot of great things came out of it.

How do you decide which artists and pieces to include in the festival?
I travel a lot. I travel to international festivals, travel around the city seeing things. People send in lots of tips for what to see and I’m constantly sifting through and trying to get a good snapshot of what’s going on in the field today.

Do you have any insight for artists trying to break into the business and get their work seen?
A lot of what I’m excited about by this type of theater is that it is often made by people who are not getting seen otherwise. Their stories aren’t being seen. They’re great actors, but no one is writing for them or no one is writing their stories. It kind of comes out of, “I want to tell my story and how can I do that?” In the process, they can really make their own version of theater, from solo talking to puppetry. It’s that do-it-yourself ethos, the really American ethos, that keeps this field going and keeps it so interesting. It’s about taking your own destiny on yourself. Sometimes that’s hard for interpretive artists; it’s easier to just audition, audition, audition, audition—and you should. But also, look at making your own work and what that takes. It opens up all sort of different avenues.

Is there any piece you’re especially excited about in this year’s festival?
We have a really full festival this year: 26 events, 105 separate performances. It’s crazy. One of them I’m worried is going to get lost is our first-ever production from China. It’s a large cast of people from Beijing, directed by this amazing director Wang Chong. It’s called “Thunderstorms 2.0.” “Thunderstorms” is a classic text in China, and he has taken it and updated it to the post-Tiananmen Square generation. I think we’re going to get a real eye into what happens on the ground in China. That’s where these stories come in so handy: it’s really people from the community, reaching out and trying to talk to people from another community.

Inspired? Check out Backstage's theater audition listings!