End of The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival Raises Concerns About NYC Experimental Landscape

The well-regarded experimental theater festival was, without warning, put on "extended hiatus" by the Public, crushing artists.

By: Jun. 05, 2023
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End of The Public Theater's Under the Radar Festival Raises Concerns About NYC Experimental Landscape

Last week, at a time when Broadway producers were worried about last-minute campaigning and how performers are going to change at the United Palace with limited dressing room space, a fact buried in a New York Times article shook the theater community. It was in the paper of record that it was announced that The Public’s Under the Radar festival--a landmark experimental theater festival that is billed by The Public itself as “a vital part of The Public’s mission”--was no more. With a quote from Oskar Eustis stating it was “entirely a financial decision” and that The Public would “look[] for a new way of embodying” support for experimental artists, it sounded over for good, but a spokesperson for the theater has said Under the Radar is rather on an “extended hiatus.” Regardless, the news hit the community hard.

“I just feel like they don’t understand the value of it,” said Kelly Copper, whose company, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, has had three productions at Under the Radar. “It impacted theater around the world--I cannot overstate that enough. If theater’s mission is to change people's lives, it’s changed our lives and I guarantee it's changed far more people’s lives than an Alicia Keys musical will. So, if you’re looking for stuff to cut, this wasn’t it.”

Under the Radar, under the leadership of Mark Russell, was a 2 ½ week annual festival in January that recently celebrated its 18th year. The festival showcased works--some very grand, some more intimate--from the US and all around the world. It was often home to what actor/writer/director Erik Jensen affectionately called “shows that wouldn’t survive a pitch meeting”--shows that were so unusual (at least to an American eye) that you wondered how they were happening in a major venue. Everyone spoken to for this piece raved about Russell and his ability, and willingness, to embrace all types of work.

Under the Radar was held at the same time as the APAP|NYC conference, which is a major world gathering of the performing arts presenting, booking and touring industry. APAP itself is pretty commercial, Under the Radar was far from that, but having them both held at the same time meant a lot of people were in town to see Under the Radar works. In other words, Under the Radar was important not only because New Yorkers saw shows there, but because bookers from around the world did.

“First, it was the one time of year where not only New Yorkers, but people from all over the world, came together to… try to figure out how the performing arts contribute to the greater good of society,” said Michael Silverstone of 600 Highwaymen, a company (run with Abigail Browde) who had a few works at the festival. “So on an emotional level, it’s a huge loss, because that’s what feeds us. Second, it’s a marketplace, and as much as we want to talk about artists being there to create works that speak to the world, Highwaymen is an enterprise that employs people. We looked to January as our marketplace--deals are made in coffee shops and lobbies and those deals turn into jobs.”

“This piece that we had made in like an unheated basement was on display,” Browde added. “Then all of a sudden we're sitting there talking to the head of the Pompidou Center in France--it changed how we valued or saw ourselves. The festival helped put artists, including ourselves and thousands of others, into that sort of global conversation that really validated the work in a different way.”

There was also a culture that built up around the festival. It was a place where you left your show and might spy David Byrne singing in the lobby as you walked to the next show. A place where you could dialogue with creators who inspired you to transform the way you made theater. A place where bonds were formed that would last well after the winter chill gave way to spring flowers.

While he is best known as a Tony-nominated actor, Arian Moayed is co-Founder of the theater company Waterwell, which presented GOODBAR and BLUEPRINT SPECIALS at the festival. "The impact extends much further than the physical production," he stated over email. "Our Waterwell/Under the Radar shows built communities, outside of the walls of the theater, to bridge a gap of understanding between us and them. Under the Radar allowed us to explore our art while building the glue to unite us. It is not only a loss for our International Artists but it’s also a loss for the rich communities that we all have built throughout the years."

Part of the issue with the announcement was that there was seemingly no warning. Insiders report that for years the budget of the festival was being consistently cut and The Public was also offering less space to the festival, requiring other venues to step in. But the festival went forward in January--its first in-person festival since 2020--with no outward hint that it would be the last time.

“I think they could have been more transparent in letting us know the potential of this happening given that their mission is being for the public,” Dramaturg Jess Applebaum, who worked with Culturebot on the 2013 Under the Radar entry SCANNING THE LANDSCAPE, said. 

Another part of the problem was Eustis’ justification sat wrong with people. There is no doubt that non-profit institutions are having trouble securing funds, so, on one hand, making a financial decision for the overall good of an institution makes total sense. On the other hand, The Public is one of our richest institutions. A decade ago, the theater had a $40 million renovation, and has since become considerably more wealthy. For the fiscal year ending August 2021, The Public listed $117,142,895 in net assets on its tax return. Oskar Eustis took in $1,122,561 in compensation, but two other executives also made over $450,000: Chief Advancement Officer Laurence Jahns was at $484,240 and Executive Director Patrick Willingham was at $472,293. It reported receiving over $45 million in contributions and grants that year. 

And while it’s hard to know exactly what Under the Radar cost--it seemingly wasn’t in the millions. The Public was a presenter, not a producer, so for many shows, a production company footed some of the bill. The Public did generally pay a presenting fee--and that fee varied--but no one interviewed for this piece said it was tremendous. For international shows, the shows’ countries of origin typically paid travel costs and artists' fees. In Rick Knowles’ book International Theatre Festivals and Twenty-First-Century Interculturalism, published in 2021, he stated the Under the Radar budget was approximately $500,000, part of which came from The Public and ticket sales, but was also comprised of funds from the government, the Doris Duke foundation, the Mellon Foundation and other donations. That figure was likely from pre-pandemic years and things have gotten exponentially more expensive, but, even at double, the cost would be $1 million. That amount would imperil other theaters, but not The Public.

This cancellation is also coming at a time when creators are already reeling. For decades, insiders have complained that increasing real estate costs have led to a dearth of experimentation, and that criticism has only increased post-pandemic. Development programs are shuttering because they simply cannot afford to continue. Other festivals that took place in January, such as COIL and American Realness, long ago shut down. Off-off-Broadway is itself in a transition period, with a financially required move away from large-scale offerings post-pandemic. Although some spoken to debated whether Eustis’ “financial decision” quote meant the cancellation decision was based on cost or a decision based on the failure of these projects to bring in future money, undoubtedly mounting costs were a factor. Nevertheless, many believe the Public should be able to support Under the Radar, even if Under the Radar itself was never going to be profitable.

“We need this work,” said Andrew Schneider, whose piece AFTER ran at Under the Radar, and stressed the amount of exposure that festival brought to him and the “family” he developed through it. “You can do some commercial works that help you fund the more artsy work. Even artists do that. We take on commercial work so we can work on our passion projects. This should be that.”

Everyone spoken to for this piece went out of their way to praise Russell, using terms like “hero” and speaking about his generosity of spirit. Many said they were desperate to find a proper showcase for their work when Russell embraced them. Copper, for example, said Russell saw a piece Nature Theater of Oklahoma did in a fourth-floor walkup and decided to give the piece a greater platform. Then, after companies had enough of a profile to mount shows abroad (where larger experimental work is more accepted and support for it is more plentiful), he gave them a home to bring their new projects back stateside. No one thought the festival was perfect--I recorded many complaints--but the influence it had was unparalleled.

Dan Rothenberg, co-Artistic Director of Pig Iron Theatre Company, whose work was featured at Under the Radar, explained there is no way of knowing what this “crater” in the theater landscape will cost. “Arts just like the sciences require R&D,” he said. “Who's going to fund that R&D? The research comes from cross-cultural pollination, and it comes from people taking risks and experimenting and you need some support for it. Without that, I don’t know what the landscape will be. I don't know what we'll miss seeing, but I also don't know what will not happen at all."

Rothenberg’s co-Artistic Director Quinn Bauriedel noted this development often impacts larger commercial theater, whether people are immediately aware of it or not. “There is always a pipeline with people really cutting their teeth in that Under the Radar scene and then of course they get grabbed for higher profile engagements,” Bauriedel said. “People get thrilled by the creativeness and wildness of Under the Radar. Without the festival I'm not sure what will fill that hole. It will be something different hopefully, but I'm not sure it will be quite as attention-getting and large scale.”

In the end that, and the fate of Russell himself, is what people worried about. Will anything take Under the Radar’s place? Many spoken to said they’ve heard from members of the international community not knowing if they’ll ever have a home in the US again. (Despite the "hiatus" language, no one involved in the festival I spoke to on background thought there were currently plans for a return.) Companies have subsumed some of the Lark’s programming, for example, but not all. And it’s not easy to find a replacement for The Public, the size and scope of it is rare, so it does seem like the “there will never be another” type of dramatic sentiment might be called for. 

Some have hope, however. Actor/writer/director Jessica Blank and husband/frequent collaborator Jensen, who are best known for THE EXONERATED but had HOW TO BE A ROCK CRITIC at Under the Radar, spoke of their belief that The Public would continue to be a home to them. Blank, who characterized the end of Under the Radar as a “heartbreaking loss to New York theater,” said she hoped that the festival ideally could go somewhere else for a few years, then maybe come back to The Public, maybe as a co-production with another theater company or two. But she knows it’s about the money. Blank said she felt the scope of the pandemic’s impact on nonprofits was just being felt now and there has to be a way to stop the bleeding.  

I just feel like there have got to be some folks out there in philanthropy or some lifelong supporters of the theater who have the economic resources who could step up and say that this is something that's important,” she stated. “Somebody has got to support the cutting-edge work. You can create a space where people are really doing it for the purpose of the work. These are people who are doing shows that may not make anybody any money but are still truly valuable parts of the creative conversation. That's a place where I think philanthropy can step up right now.”

A Public spokesperson declined my request to interview someone about the decision to cancel Under the Radar, but did say a statement would come at some point. An update will be made to this story when it does.

Update Wednesday at 2:30pm: This column comes out weekly every Monday morning. A statement was not available at that time. The Public Theater sent me a long statement a few minutes ago that they also released on their social media, where you can read it in its entirety. As part of the statement, Eustis again states the decision to cancel UTR was a financial one. It reads: "The Public, like almost every other non-profit theater in the country, is facing serious financial pressure. We have not returned to pre-pandemic economics, neither in our expenses nor our revenue... We must act now to avoid the kind of existential pressure currently battering some of our sister theaters."  

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