MARK RUSSELL ON CURATING UNDER THE RADAR

under-the-radar

UNDER THE RADAR

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Under the Radar (UTR) is an annual theater festival, envisioned and produced by Mark Russell, and resident at the Public Theater in NYC, spotlighting international artists ranging from emerging talents to masters in the field. Through the festival Russell has promoted a diversity of works by ensembles, solo artists, writers, and creators. His ultimate goal has been to “offer a crash course in cutting edge theatre that is exciting, independent, and experimental, created by some of the most dynamic artists working today.” In its eight-year history, UTR has offered over 100 productions from more than 17 countries and the U.S., including Australia, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, France, Ireland, Mali, Mexico, The Netherlands, Russia and the UK. Some artists who have collaborated with UTR include SITI Company, Back to Back, Elevator Repair Service, Kassys, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Superamas, Abbey Theatre, Mike Daisey, Motus, Reggie Watts, Teatro De Los Andes, and many more.

The festival premiered at St. Ann’s Warehouse January 2005, focusing primarily on theater companies based in the United States. In 2006, UTR moved to The Public Theater whose history of promoting new works is legendary. In its second year, UTR branched out further into the international theater community. This festival featured performances from Brazil, the Netherlands, Australia, Indonesia, France, Austria, the United Kingdom and the U.S. The tradition continued in 2007, as the festival once again highlighted contemporary and independent work from around the world. The festival, initially a five-day event, has, due to its ever-increasing popularity, expanded to its current two-week format.

Mark Russell and Under the Radar

Over the years, Mark Russell has made sure that New Yorkers can have the same exceptional theatre experience that is had in Avignon, Montreal, Amsterdam, Singapore, and Paris among other places: the opportunity to not only feast on the latest in theatrical innovation from across the world, but also the kind of setting where theatre artists can meet up with each other and share interests and networks. Festivals, like UTR, where theatre artists, producers, and the public can convene after a show, buy each other drinks, and talk late into the night about what they have seen and its relevance to the current state of the theatre are the most satisfying and effective in nurturing its evolution.

Mark Russell has been at the center of NY’s alternative theatre scene, promoting it both locally and globally for many years, recognizing that the theatre visionaries of the future can only thrive if their work is recognized and promoted on the international stage. The qualities that Mark Russell brings to fostering new theatre in the US and internationally––his embracing of young artists, his passion for educating the theatre community about innovative theatre, and his ability to create an environment where artists and patrons can enjoy an easy interchange of ideas and interests––are exceptional and have made him uniquely suited to providing a home and launching pad for up and coming US theatre companies and international ensembles.

Russell is about to start a new phase in his work as he relocates to Switzerland where his partner is taking on a new position and where he hopes to have more time to spend with his young son. In the meantime, he will continue to work with UTR in collaboration with his current Associate Artistic Producer Mayan Wang and Associate Producer Andrew Kircher, who have worked with him over many years.

Mark Russell

MARK RUSSELL Photo Tristan Fuge @TheaterMania.com

MARK RUSSELL
Photo Tristan Fuge @TheatreMania.com

Mark Russell is an independent producer/curator working internationally. Russell produced the first Under the Radar Festival at Arts at St. Ann’s Warehouse in January 2005. The festival enjoyed great success and returned in January 2006 to the Public Theater with the support of Art Presenters, the Doris Duke Foundation, the British Council and the National Performance Network. In 2005 Russell was an artistic advisor and curator for the Act French Theater Festival in NYC, programmed the first New Works series at the Apollo Theater, served as an artistic consultant and programmer for Theatre at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop and taught at NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing. In August of 2005 Russell was chosen to be the first guest artistic director of the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art-Time Based Arts Festival, in Portland Oregon.  For over 20 years Mr. Russell was the executive/artistic director of Performance Space 122 (P.S.122) located in the East Village. An active participant in the Performance Space community since it’s beginning in 1979, he created and coordinated events as an outside director in the early days, and once he assumed the directorship, Mr. Russell brought P.S.122 from a modest rental performance space to a renowned year round professionally equipped full production space. In 1984, he was given a Village Voice Art Hero Award for his work at P.S.122. In 2000 he was awarded the prestigious Ross Wetson Obie for sustained achievement and support of emerging theatre artists. In May of 2004 he was awarded an Obie for Lifetime Achievement. Eric Bogosian––who got his start at P.S.122 in the 80s––on Mark Russell: “Russell is a genius at finding the awkward new stuff, the gems and diamonds no one’s noticed yet. If the ‘artist is the antenna of the race,’ then Mark is the antenna of the antenna.”

Interview, December 2012, by Liza Wade Green and Samson Hertz.

Liza Wade Green: Since 2005, when you started the festival, have you noticed any trickle-down effect, if I can call it that?  Last time we met, you talked a little bit about presenters in Athens, Georgia, or the like and I’m interested if there are places like Athens––outside of cultural centers––where you’ve seen an impact from UTR. Are theatres presenting more diverse work thanks to UTR?

 Mark Russell: We hope so. I don’t have any real good data on that––just anecdotal and hopeful. What we’ve been working on is getting more involved in the American regional theater. I feel we’ve made some small steps that way. That just continues to grow, but it’s drip-torture-style. Sort of, keep going and eventually it will come about. But these are expensive habits, these international productions, so getting them there is tough.

Samson Hertz: Why is it important for UTR to be a global festival, or maybe why is it important for festivals to be global in general?

M: Well, I don’t know about other festivals, but ours is global because I have a couple of agendas going on. I want to introduce American artists to a global conversation. I want US artists to see international work, first of all, and then I want them to meet the people who are producing the work. One way that works at UTR is because it is this platform environment. It helps upgrade the level and spotlight on American work by including the international work. At the same time, I’m really interested in trying to break down these barriers: have a global conversation. Theater is so often just so local, that it’s tough. How many theaters have a global mission? The Public [Theater] hasn’t necessarily had a global mission in the past and that’s what I’m trying to help build up now.

S: You mentioned that theater is hyper local, and you want to make it international. What do you think the role of the community is on an international level or an international platform?

M: How does the community work? I’m playing to a community, a local community. So I’m in dialogue––a festival is always in dialogue with the people around it that they want to have come to see it. What I’m Interested in is some of these works, works of exceptional value that touch on universal themes. Maybe they made it in Lyon, France, for their people, but then someone sees something in it, or I see something in it and say, “Well they have something to tell my artists and my audience.” Sometimes it’s a little view––not necessarily directly––into the life of the culture over there in Lyon. Like, “what is going on with those folks? What are they thinking about? What is their perspective on the world?” …This work, which is small scale––the largest theater we have is 300 seats ––rarely gets to tour in the U.S. because it takes so much grief to get them over here…I like it small scale. I like it intimate and direct in that way.

L: You say that the artists in UTR are responding to this question, “Why do theater now?” How do you think this year’s artists, this year’s cohort, are responding to that question?

M: Well, they don’t even know it’s a question. They’re just making work. So each of them is making their work in their own idiosyncratic way and coming through that. So it’s natural that these artists––which are usually auteur artists––see the world or make the work to tell their story in the way they best can, using whatever is in the kitchen sink to make that happen. Often, I find, that breaks open the form. And then sometimes they’re real plays, but they may be arrived at in different ways. What Debate Society does very much looks like a real play. But the way they arrive at that is so unique and special that they need to be seen.

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Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen writers/performers of BLOOD PLAY

L: How do you get audiences here interested in that kind of work?

M: One of the things is by creating a circus-like festival. People just start coming to the circus. They know it’s going to be interesting, or maybe there’s one thing, one sexy picture that attracts them, and they may be exposed to other things. “We’re here now, we might as well go see that Fleur Elise Noble piece that’s in the lobby as well as this other piece we’re coming to.” Or someone will tell them about this. Word of mouth is the strongest. And festivals are great at generating this word of mouth and community around a festival––its own transient community. When I was at PS 122, I had a much harder time convincing people that they had to be at PS 122 every weekend. People just don’t take their entertainment that way, mostly. It was a constant struggle to tell people all year long why it’s important they’re there this week. Sometimes they couldn’t make it, or sometimes it was just nice out. You never knew when that weekend would hit. Having a festival helps. It’s kind of a marketing construct.

Fleur Elise Noble creator/performer of  DIMENSIONAL LIFE OF HER

Fleur Elise Noble creator/performer of DIMENSIONAL LIFE OF HER

S: What is the best strategy to get people come every week? What are some of the things you tried to do to have people come every week?

M: It really depends on where you’re working. At PS 122 I had two theaters. Sometimes I’d have big names and small names. A lot of it became direct marketing to various niches. You know, this is for the experimental dance community…boom. And this is for a multicultural music community…boom. It just takes a lot of labor and a lot of sensitivity to who is going to really pick up on what this is, and then trying to reach them. As well as building this reputation: a lot of people would just come through town and see what was at PS 122 because that’s what they did. Like a lot of Europeans who come to New York City and go “Okay, this is Broadway stuff, but where is your alternative space?” because they all have alternative spaces in their cities. “Oh, go down to 122.”  They would find PS 122 and see something. That was that. Even within the festival we try for a niche market. We’re looking at specific invitations for people. It’s really guerilla warfare. It’s one by one by one by one.

S: So how is a festival like this marketing scheme that you mentioned?

M: So how is a festival like a marketing scheme? Well, I did kind of say that. It’s Black Friday [the day after Thanksgiving when Americans go shopping, en masse, for Christmas presents] for experimental performance art. You can come to two weeks of experimental performance art, and you are good for cocktail conversations for the whole year. You don’t have to go see anything else. You’ve seen it all if you’ve done a little time at Under the Radar. So we’re trying to get people to take a kind of holiday, an experimental theater holiday. I mean, festivals are about holiday: they’re about letting go of the rules. I’m asking people to binge on experimental theater and some people do. When I was running a festival out in Portland, Oregon, people would take off their vacations to come to the TBA Festival, which was an incredible weighty responsibility.

L: What are some of the biggest challenges that Under the Radar has faced or encountered?

M: Well, I think always struggling with budget and trying to pay artists a responsible fee, trying to prepare artists for the level of this platform, the intensity of it, is difficult. Sometimes we have presented American work, especially, that has not been ready to be seen. Sometimes it’s a great piece but they have to change one cast member, and that upsets the whole apple pie. When you come to Under the Radar in this particular situation, you got eight, maybe ten hours to tech: it’s intense. You have to be playing alongside people who have been touring the world already teaching in eight hours, and their shows are smooth. So how do you get them ready? For a while, when I was running TBA, I would try things out for Under the Radar at TBA in September. That was great. Reggie Watts tried his own stuff at TBA and we were able to take it the next step into Under the Radar. It was just enough time to decide, “Is this something we want to show or not?” I’m a big fan of the out of town trials. We’re trying to find a place to develop work. Eventually that’s what we will be doing. That’s our next challenge: trying to create environments where we can develop work more, whether it comes to Under the Radar, or comes to the Public’s season, or it moves around in other ways. That’s what we’re doing.

S: You talked about budgets and paying artists, and mentioned that it was sickening that you could actually make money in New York City by doing theater.

M: Well…sickening. I mean, it’s one of the things that skews New York City theater, is that you could actually do this thing and turn into Blue Man Group, and make, you know, however much money they’ve made. So there’s always that. And sometimes that loads up on folks. You get people playing more conservatively perhaps, or trying to own things more, getting into turf wars. It gets into all sorts of loyalties, and you don’t necessarily have to deal with that in other cities. Here, the stakes are very high. For the most part, it makes everybody up their game. But some of the more fluid parts, the sharing parts, are tougher.

L: What personality traits do you have that lend themselves to being a festival curator and presenter?

M: Well, I try to stand under the work, not in front of the work. I’m not so assured to be like, “Wow, this is the best thing in the world.” I want the work to speak. That’s my approach and it’s a quieter approach, I hope, and it allows the artists to find their level of what they want to do and what they want to say––not that they have to say it for Mark.  Or that I’m the smartest guy in the room. I’m more interested in getting the work to work. And that’s served me pretty well.

L: What is one of the best decisions you’ve made?

M: Well, I make organic choices. When something really moves me and I feel certain about it, I want to bring that to this community. I can bring it here with passion. And that often goes a long way. You can talk intellectually about it but often when people are faced with pure passion they just roll over. They’re like, “If he’s going to put himself on the line that much then it’s gonna be good. ” We’ve had some successes. Some of it goes back a long time. I remember seeing Lemon Andersen when he was part of Universes and it was one of the first times he had performed in an “art space”––he had been performing in all of these spoken-word [events]. And all of his homies came down; all of the people from the block he was on came down to see him for the first time. It was an intense night.

L: Was this at PS 122?

M: Yeah, and, you know he grew on from there and ended up on Broadway. I always knew about Lemon. I was kind of keeping track and someone said to me off the cuff one day, “Oh Lemon’s working on a piece for The American Place Theatre Theatre’s Literature to Life and actually he’s doing a rehearsal tonight.” So I went there that night and reconnected with Lemon. And it’s been a long, long relationship. It opened doors for him, which has been great. So some of those things pay off. Same thing with Anthony and the Johnsons, you know, he had this group called  Blacklips Performance Cult and they were performing at midnight on Mondays at the Pyramid Club and someone told me about them and I had run into him. So I gave him a weekend at PS 122 to see if the stuff he was doing at midnight would actually work for people who couldn’t stay up that late. And it did. It was magic. You know, that’s been a long relationship. It’s something you never know. That’s one of the nice things about being an old man in the business. You never know who’s going to come from where. You try to keep your eyes open. Someone that’s my intern could end up being my funder. I’ve had that happen. So these things develop and go off in interesting ways and if you’re open to them and making those connections, then you can help. Sometimes you can reconnect with people and open up different things for them.

S: I liked when you said part of your goal as a curator or as an arts administrator is to “get the work to work.” I was wondering how much of a relationship is there between being an artist and being an arts manager? Is managing the art, is curating the art an art itself? Are you an artist by doing this work?

M: It uses some of the same things. I was trained as a theatre director and now I direct a theatre. But, you can’t forget that you’re not an artist. You are there to serve these artists: to make their vision show up and not get in their way. Because you’re here in this position of power, you can get pumped up with “Oh, it’s my vision.” No, you’re not any good unless you have these artists taking real risks with their own lives. My world doesn’t have as much of a risk. It’s an honor that I get paid a salary all year round to do this. For a while at [PS] 122 I felt I was the best-paid man in the East Village. All of my artist friends were trying to live gig to gig and had other jobs and all of those things and I felt honored that I got to work full time at something I loved. But, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t about me. It was about them. You can get lost cause people start to blow smoke up your nose and all sorts of other stuff. So keeping yourself slightly humble to the work is good. And that actually takes work or check; you have to keep checking yourself. Cause it is kind of an art project…a larger art project conceptually. There must be something I do that’s different but I try to not get too in love with it. That’s a real danger. That’s when it stops…I want to go on a ride with this. If I’m not surprised by my own festival, I may not be doing it well. I need a little risk in there as a curator to make it interesting. Sometimes, oftentimes, I’ll put together a festival and we’ll be sitting in October trying to lock this thing down and I’ll be turning to my associate Meiyin going, “It needs something else…it needs something else…we’re missing something.” We put everything up on a board and we’re always kind of looking at it hoping that something will come out to us and then we go (he snaps) “Bang!” Something will come through and we’ll go, “Okay, that’s the salt. That’s the thing that people are not going to expect.” Cause you’re trying to create these things where they don’t grow moss. Under the Radar is at very a particular point now where it’s an institution, people think it’s well funded and rolling along. (funny voice) “Oh, that’s Under the Radar.” And you want to keep them guessing. Having the element of surprise is so important for arts organizations. You got to make something special for people.

L: What about when you’re not traveling the world, curating. What do you do in your free time?

M: Free time…I have a lot of free time (he laughs). Sometimes when I get so frustrated watching work, I try to make work myself. And I realize how much I should not be making work. I call it, “cultural repatriation.” You remind yourself how hard it is to make this stuff and how incredibly brave people are to do it. So when I get an empty minute sometimes I do that. And I have a nine-year-old son so I supervise a lot of little league activities. I’m not a coach but I play a lot of catch on the weekends. It’s the best.

L: Has having a family changed the way you work or curate?

M: It’s made me be more surgical because it ups the ante a lot. Like okay, I’m watching this thing: I’m watching someone just out of school regurgitating something they learned from somebody and it’s not working. And it may be only an hour but that’s an hour when I could be talking to my son. And you can kind of go, “I hate you. You’re wasting my time.” And that’s not fair. That’s why I try to pack up days where I see three or four things in a row. And when I go to festivals I don’t stay as long as I used to. I try to make it a very surgical attack: see five or six things in row or see one thing in particular and get out of there because my time with my family is really going to be short especially with him at this age. But curating is a young man’s job. Directing and curating are young people’s jobs because it’s so much a hustle and you have to completely believe that this is the most important thing you’re going to do. It becomes harder when you get this larger weight of the world or you become older and when you walk into bars they think you’re the chaperone.  And keeping a fresh eye is as much work as it is…in the beginning it’s kind of easy because you’re putting on your friends and after you run out of your friends, then you find out what your tastes really are and you can tap into a scene or find things happening. I have to work harder. I have to be wilier. I have to listen to my interns and my associates.

S: I’d like to know what’s unique about UTR. What separates it from other festivals?

M: UTR isn’t that unique. It’s taking a formula that happens a lot in Europe and bringing it here. One of the things that’s great is that we have this whole multiplex of theatres. And it really became a festival when we created a club to go with it. And because it’s at The Public it has a lot of good reach. I get to work with the whole resources of this place from the accounting staff to the marketing staff to the development staff. It would cost me maybe three times what I spend here just to create the instrument around it. Then it becomes fiscally impossible: you’re using so much on the administration year round that it doesn’t work. So that’s one way we’re lucky. How is it different? It’s got a luxurious place in that it happens in New York City.  New York City doesn’t have that many festivals like this. They have festivals but they’re not festivals for artists. One of the things I try to keep going is that we try and keep the artists all the way through the festival even though that costs us more and it’s a risk about how many seats we can fill because I want the artists to be seen by other artists. So I have several rings of audience. In one of the closest rings are artists. And I have a conversation with them about what’s going on, a dialog with artists about the field. And then you open it up because artists are the carrier pigeons of culture; they’re bringing it out. Everyone knows, “we always go see what Marky likes to see because he’s an actor and he sees cool stuff.” And so that’s how that begins to work. It becomes more about marketing and shaping a community and bringing more people into the community. So that’s been our formula that’s working really well. Certain other places: there’s an amazing festival in Belgium, the Kunsten Festival, out of Brussels that always has the best, most cutting edge work.  It takes place over three or four weeks so it’s a little tough to get in on a community of work there. And one of the festivals I really modeled it on is Polverigi Festival [in] Italy, which I went to way back in the eighties and I haven’t been back since. But the leader at that time said, “A festival must be relaxed.” And he meant it in all ways. And his technicians were even relaxed. Basically you went, you had dinner, you saw a show, you went and had coffee, if they were ready, then you’d see a show. And this goes on till four in the morning. Then you’d all go to bed, wake up, have a dip in the pool. And then nine o’clock the next night the thing would begin again. It was in this small city on this little mountain and it was this encompassing community of curators, and artists and audience members. So that’s been one of my touchstone models…but in New York we can’t do it relaxed – we have to play it like punk rock. It has to take its own shape.

 Liza Wade Green is a Brooklyn-based performing artist and writer who enjoys creating interdisciplinary works that blend playful storytelling with athletic movement. As a performer, writer, director, and choreographer she has collaborated on dozens of original pieces of dance and theatre in the United States, Canada, and Europe. She is currently working towards an M.F.A. in Performance and Interactive Media Arts at Brooklyn College.

 Samson Hertz, born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., studies the combinations and interactions between the visual and performing arts. His main media are music, visual art, and event planning. Samson received his BA degree in Interdisciplinary Science from the New School, and is an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College’s Performing Arts Management program.

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