BWW Interviews: Mark Russell - Looking Under the Radar
There is no shortage of theater festivals in New York City, especially in the wake of spring’s awards season. Bucking the warm-weather trend is next month’s Under the Radar Festival, produced by The Public Theater and running from January 4 through January 15 at the Public and at other venues throughout the city.
2012 will mark the eighth year of the festival, and producer Mark Russell notes that this year’s event will be especially international, with productions from Argentina, Japan, Turkey and Ireland, among others. “We structured it this way because I thought we should look at what artists around the world are thinking about,” Russell says. “Next year, we’ll be focused on the US during the presidential election, so this is great opportunity to look at the world and look at our problems through the lens of the world.”
Over the two years they spent developing this year’s festival, Russell and his team watched more than 300 videotapes from applicants. The team also traveled around the world in search of shows and artists to promote, and then helped raise money for the candidates. Several productions, like Goodbar (an adaptation of the novel Looking for Mr. Goodbar) and Sontag: Reborn, were developed at the Public, which has offered what Russell calls “finishing funds” to bring the shows to fruition.
In the wake of 2011’s notable political activity around the world, several productions at Under the Radar will reflect various movements that impacted different countries. As an example, Russell points to Alexis: A Greek Tragedy (pictured right), courtesy of Italian company Motus, which created Too Late! antigone (contest #2) in last year’s festival. “We heard about this 15-year-old boy who was killed in Greece,” Russell remembers. “That sparked a lot of riots. It was a touch point, like the Tunisian man who lit himself on fire.” To link Greece’s socio-political situation to America’s, Motus has partnered with Judith Malina of The Living Theater. “She came to see their Antigonethis year and they started collaborating, and they created a piece called The Plot is the Revolution, which will have a single performance at LaMama” on January 9, Russell says. Malina will discuss playing ancient political rebel Antigone in 1969, and Motus will talk about their modern take on the story. Another piece, Lick But Don’t Swallow!, created by Ayça Damgac?, only got a single performance in Turkey before heavy criticism from Islamic papers forced its early closure. “It’s about an angel—and that’s what upset the Islamics—who comes from heaven and lands in a porn set, so all hell breaks loose. It’s a lot of fun.”
Not that every show is so politically minded, of course, but Russell feels that all art is political, “in a certain way,” he adds quickly. There is also plenty of room for fun and non-political creativity, of course. “The Table [from English puppet theater company Blind Summit] has a puppet talking about his fate. It’s an amazing little piece, because they improvise with the puppet. It takes four men to operate it.”they started collaborating, and they created a piece called The Plot is the Revolution, which will have a single performance at LaMama” on January 9, Russell says. Malina will discuss playing ancient political rebel Antigone in 1969, and Motus will talk about their modern take on the story. Another piece, Lick But Don’t Swallow!, created by Ayça Damgac?, only got a single performance in Turkey before heavy criticism from Islamic papers forced its early closure. “It’s about an angel—and that’s what upset the Islamics—who comes from heaven and lands in a porn set, so all hell breaks loose. It’s a lot of fun.”
Russell is especially optimistic about providing a platform for the next generation of theatrical inventors. “We have a couple artists who I think will have lots to say in the future. It’s like meeting Peter Brook at 30 years old,” he says. For examples, he points to Toshiki Okada’s Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech, a three-part performance at the Japan Society, and Argentinian Mariano Pensotti’s The Past is a Grotesque Animal (pictured left). “Both comment on the theatrical experience in a very different way,” he says. “Toshiki’s language seems flat and banal, but this wonderful movement goes with it. Pensotti has everyone on a wooden revolve that’s always turning. His actors are telling a story that takes place over 10 years in Argentina.”
“I’m not an intellectual programmer,” Russell continues. “I’m a gut programmer. I look at things and think of how they’ll reflect and resonate with my audience. What will they say to the audience, and to the artists? Will new artists be discovered? I’m facilitating a dialogue on many different levels, and I have to love it. I have to want to know more about the piece. That’s what drives us.”
Russell believes that theater works best with populations that do not have much of a voice in popular culture—the people whose stories are not being told on TV. “That’s where it works best—when it brings out their point of view,” he says. “That’s what interests me about smaller theater companies. They are closer to the grass roots of their country.” To wit, Russell references a playwright who became the leader of his country, and combined art and politics in a way few others have ever accomplished. “One of Vaclav Havel’s first works in the US was done at the Public. He had a good relationship with Joe Papp. He made plays for small venues. They didn’t play to 2,000 people. They were small—300 people at most. I love big spectacles as well, but I think theater is best without microphones.”
Ultimately, Russell says, the Under the Radar festival is trying to answer one basic question: “Why do theater now? Each of these pieces is an answer to that question. There are so many ways of telling stories, so why do theater? Each of these brings it back.”
Photo Credit: Almudena Crespo