|Mr. Mark Russell
Mark Russell is the producer and director of The Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival, which he started in 2005 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, NY, in January of 2005, focusing primarily on theater companies based in the United States. In 2006, he moved UTR to The Public Theater in Manhattan, making it branch out further into the international theater community. January 2012 marked it’s 8th Edition, which highlighted contemporary and independent work from around the world for two weeks. Russell included for the first time productions from Japan in the festival line-up: Toshiki Okada’s “Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and Farewell Speech” by chelfitch theater company and Hideki Noda’s “THE BEE,” both presented at the Japan Society. Prior to founding UTR festival, Russell was the Executive/Artistic Director of Performance Space 122, aka PS122, in East Village in New York City from 1983-2004. Russell served as the guest Artistic Director of PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival in Portland, OR, from 2006 to 2008.
Associaition for Performing Arts Presenters (APAP)
Both are contemporary museums
Both are small venues to present international contemporary works
"Watt" was one of Beckett's early novels witten in 1945.
"Bonanza" is 70 minutes piece created by an Antwerp-based multimedia collective called Berlin. It is an intimate documentary portrait of an abandoned mining town in Colorado.
Born in NY, Francis R. Hodge was a member of the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin from 1949 until he retired in 1979 as professor emeritus. During his 30-year career in the Department of Drama, he taught classes in every aspect of theatre activity, but his primary interests were in theater history and directing. He directed more than 55 plays. He was especially known for his interpretations of the works of Lope de Vega, Marlowe, Farquhar, Ibsen, O’Casey, Anouilh, Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, and George Bernard Shaw.
|The Under The Radar festival is held annually in New York just prior to the Association for Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) meeting in New York that gathers presenters and producers from throughout the country. As its name implies, the festival presents cutting-edge works that are not on the mainstream radar and not performed at the major theaters. Under The Radar was launched experimentally at the St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2005 with the aim of bringing such cutting-edge works to the attention of a larger audience. Since the following year, UTR’s main venue has been New York’s Public Theater, where this year’s festival presented 14 works from nine countries beginning on January 4th. In this interview we spoke with the founder of UTR and longtime leader of the New York arts scene as director of P.S.122 one of the most influential presenters in North America, Mark Russell. He gives us a picture of his vision and the challenges of UTR.
[Interviewer: Yoko Shioya
, Artistic Director of Japan Society, New York]
In a nutshell, what is the Under The Radar festival?
Under The Radar (UTR) is a festival that happens every year in New York City in January, starting just before the annual Arts Presenter's conference (*1)
, for which 4000 professionals – presenters and producers from around the world – come to New York City every year. The festival focuses on smaller-scale theater work, which does not get a lot of chances to tour. "Cats
" tours all over the world – that's just fine – but smaller-scale theaters are really the type of theater work that have real connection with communities and tell the stories of communities. So the UTR festival works as a real cultural exchange.
How did you start the UTR festival?
I had a conversation with some people, including Olga Garay, who was then a program director for the arts for a funding organization, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. We talked about why major creators of theater of our time in this country are not in the major theaters. For example, the Wooster Group in New York City has toured to contemporary art museums like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Wexner Center (*2)
in Ohio and small theaters specializing in international performing arts like Seattle’s On the Board and Los Angeles’ Red Cat (*3)
, but they weren't touring to America's established theaters such as Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Boston’s A.R.T (American Repertory Theater) or The Public Theater in New York. Why was that?
If you write a history of American theater, probably you will write about Wooster Group and Richard Foreman as seminal artists. But they are not seen at U.S. established theaters. These independent groups, or "homeless theaters," were making their way by commissions from presenters, going oversees and touring – but they are not invited to major American theaters. Maybe there is some synchronicity between those two worlds…?
Then, there were a couple of conferences gathering a couple of hundreds of industry people from many places to discuss this issue. And we found it was really a tough issue, tougher than multiculturalism. The people in the established theater world said, "We are doing a lot of new works. We have readings of new plays every week. And we produce plays all season, every year!” It was quite a surprise.
So finally, I said to Olga, "Let's do a meeting in New York before the APAP in January.” I received money to do just a conference, but I took that money and make it into a festival at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. Instead of a one-day meeting, it was 7-day festival. That was 2005. I said, " We will do shows so that everybody can see what we are talking about. Then the major theater people can disagree with us – or not.” One of those people who was there and agreed with us was Oskar Eustis. After he got the current job of Artistic Director at The Public Theater in the same year, I was one of the first people he invited to come and work with him. So I took Under The Radar festival from St. Ann's Warehouse to The Public in 2006.
What kind of support enabled you to make the UTR festival happen? And, are there other things required to make a festival your festival?
The first financial support was from The Duke Foundation. Then we got other serious support. Doing the festival needs substantial support, because I wanted to keep the ticket prices very low so that audience can see multiple shows. We have been successful because this year's festival, its 8th, is the first time we raised the ticket price, from $15 to $20. Still very low.
I had a sort of utopian idea of "festival.” That is: a) Many works can be seen in a few weeks instead of taking place over a few months such as the BAM's Next Wave Festival or Paris' Festival d'Automne; b) Having artists stay over the entire festival period so they can interact; c) audience are able to see different shows at different times – like a film festival; d) serving as a "common meeting place.” In addition, I wanted talk-backs and all the other things that make a festival work. Later we added a "club" – and then UTR became a real festival. It became a festival for the rest of the city not just for performing arts industry professionals.
The Public Theater is the perfect space for all these things. It has multiple theaters like a cineplex, and it is an institution that people can trust, and so they can take a risk. The idea is that audience should see two or more things, including something that they didn't know.
Talking about the name, "Under The Radar," will you keep trying to excavate things still "under the radar" for the festival line-up?
I am sure most of the kids making theater downtown think the UTR festival line-up is way over the radar. But, I'm also talking on a global and national scale. Take one of this year's programs as an example, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who's been around for a few years now and is quite respected. Many theater-goers and professionals would not consider him as "under the radar.” But there are a lot of people who still don't know about him. Especially Public Theater's regular audiences do not necessarily know about him, and introducing his work to those people is very important.
Also, I've stretched the definition of "under the radar" pretty wide. Last year, I included a piece called "Watt," written by a "young" playwright out of Ireland called Samuel Beckett (laugh) (*4)
. It was one of the most adventurous pieces in the festival, posing a question, "What is Samuel Beckett doing at Under The Radar?
” In this sense, that piece within the whole festival was working as a meeting point, because it showed a view that other young experimental works could possibly be the next Samuel Beckett.
So, do you try to define "experimental theater work" through the UTR festival?
Well, that's impossible. (Laugh) Theater is a very old form and therefore I am interested in "Why do theater now?
” I think each artist in my festival answers this each in their own way. Sometimes, some shows in the UTR festival may not seem experimental because sometimes I try to reinvent the "theater-for-now" by presenting "what is in use now.” You know, some artists are making one-on-one theater, and some others are going back to a simple reading. Also I have a pretty wide definition of "theater.” As a matter of fact, this year and last year, the UTR festival included pieces in which you see only a film on stage.
In last year's UTR festival, I saw "Bonanza," consisting of five video projections and a large-scale model of a small town, with no actors, no set (*5). We talked about it, saying, "It was interesting piece – but do we call it 'theater'…?"
See? – you are beginning to ask what theater means. On the other side, I couldn't think of "Bonanza
" not happening in a theater. It would not have worked in a place like a museum where people would just walk through. It was a time-based art. You had to sit down and watch. You might look at it as a documentary film but with the three-dimensional large model and lighting and many other elements, there was something else that made the viewer's experience a theater experience.
But, I am not interested in some experimental groups that seem to talk to themselves. I watch them and sometimes and I find that they are having interesting conversations – but by themselves. Most of the audience cannot understand it. I am not interested in that connection: I prefer open dialogue. .
Since when did you become interested in performing arts and theater, and how?
I moved around a lot when I was a child, and eventually came to Austin, Texas. In the late 60's and 70's, Austin was a very fertile place in the U.S., but I fell in with a bunch of theater people. So I went to University of Texas for theater, learning directing. I studied with a man named Francis Hodge (*6)
, who is a great directing teacher, and also a Polish woman, JagienkaZych. I became interested in Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Sam Shepard, etc.
Do you mean you saw these people's work performed in Texas in those days?
No. I was "reading" about all these things through the British magazine "Plays and Players
.” At the same time, I started directing my own things. In those days I had never thought I would ever work in New York. I always thought that I would be directing a regional theater. When I graduated, my mentor, Jagienka arranged a trip to Poland for me, which was still behind the iron curtain. I spent about 8 weeks there, and met and worked with many amazing Polish directors, including Grotowski and his people. That basically changed my life. When I started back to Austin, I stopped in New York, and I never left; never got home. There was no reason to go back to Austin, because I had no job there.
It was my first time to come to New York but I got a little place to stay, and little jobs like selling shirts and working at a yogurt place – some odd jobs. It was in late 1977. Touring around in New York City, I found that theater was still a male-dominant world, and so it wasn't doing very well with feminism or alternative ideas at that time, while the dance world and the "performance arts" world had more fluidity and were politically more up to date. so I got interested in them. Then I fell in with the dancers and the dance crowd. And these dancers ended up starting PS122 by occupying the building, which was formerly "Public School 122," which was abandoned by the City in 1976.
And then a group of artists squatted in it…. That is one of the famous New York stories of the '70s.
Yes, but they didn't know what to do with the big room on the second floor so they asked Charles Moulton, a choreographer, to run it. He brought in many artists such as Tim Miller, Peter Rose Charles Dennis and Gabrielle Lansner to help him. There was a whole scene that grew up around that. Then in 1979, they cleared the place out for shooting the movie "Fame
" at PS122. After the film was finished, the artists returned.. That was around the time when I was introduced to them, and I was doing things to help them out – while still trying to become a theater director. But as for the artists at PS122, their own careers were taking off, and they thought I knew more about business than they did. So they asked me to stay on and help them with administration. They told me that I would have a salary of $7,000 for a year. It included what I would make on unemployment. So it really was only $3,000 (laugh).
I was the only employee for a year and a half or so. It was not incorporated, just a group with a bank account for doing business. I started to get them 503(c)3 status and prepare books. I actually helped to name it, "PS122.” They wanted to call it "Auditorium Projects" but I said, "No, no, it should be PS122 – not Public School 122 but Performance Space 122.” So we began.. We later found another space in the building – so we had two performance spaces.
So you are the one who made PS122 a "decent" entity. Those days, did you still maintain the idea of becoming a regional theater director?
I decided pretty early on that I was a theater director who was directing a theater. I became more interested in the whole experience than in helping an actor to find his role. Besides, the directing world was not begging me to come back. (laugh)
What I started doing for PS122 was to help them apply for grants. I also figured out how to match the audience with the artists, instead of just renting [out the space]. You know, PS122 was just a rental space then. I flipped it – so that it became a presenting space. Then we began to pay artists, and gave them the space. Eventually we commissioned them. And our budget was growing from $40,000 to $600,000 to a million dollars, very quickly.
Who were the supporters of PS122?
In those days, the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) was very strong. And there were a couple of private foundations that were very interested in us. Also, New York State Council on the Arts gave us support. It was a sort of honeymoon period because BAM had just started their NEXT WAVE FESTIVAL in 1983 and everyone wanted to know where their new stuff – cross-disciplinary works – originally came from. So it opened up like, "Oh, look what's happening over here at this little space!” I didn't call those works dance or theater or film; I just called them "performance" because all of them were taking elements from different parts.
Were you focusing the cross-disciplinary works because you thought, "OK, nobody is presenting this area, so I will try!"….?
I wish it were like that, a beautiful intellectual exercise. (laugh) Basically, PS122 then was a clubhouse for the artists living in the East Village, which was a cheap place to live and physically very dangerous. They were young artists who could have been in "Einstein On The Beach
" or had worked with Meredith Monk. In other words, they were sort of children of those major experimental artists who started making their own work. There were a bunch of these artists who could not get an engagement at the venues like The Kitchen (alternative space), or Franklin Furnace (avant-garde art space), or Dance Theater Workshop (small contemporary dance theater). So, we were a sort of an offshoot.
I decided that PS122 should be a great sandbox where as many people as possible could play. But of course, I wasn't going to just let anybody in. I started curating it, or "programming" it. It means that, in order to have a certain quality, I conducted very wide investigation. I often felt that I didn't have to understand the work, but I had to "stand-under
" it – that is, I had to support the work. In major theaters, artists who are selected by the artistic director to be presented there are only as smart as the artistic director. If he doesn't understand your work, you would not be going to his theater. But what I was interested in was to see how many smarter, more talented or more interesting people/artists than myself I could put in the two spaces at PS122. As a result, sometimes 2 or 3 things were happening in one night in the same space. It was like a constant festival, every week, all year ‘round – even Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.
Was there enough audience for so many programs and events?
Well, yes and no. Each of the groups were getting their own very interested audience. And, for a while our programs were always sold-out because we only put out that
many chairs. We were very flexible. (laugh). And we kept the ticket price low. PS122 was also a space where people rehearsed and took classes – and in the evenings there were shows. It was a community space – but a unique community space dedicated to experimental arts.
We also did a program called "Open Movement," which happened every Tuesday. It cost $2 – you just come, and the room is yours. That is, everyone came, paid only $2 and then danced. There was no music; it was just an improvisational dance evening. . There was no border line between performer and audience. It was a sort of a church-like function for performance and dance because it was an activity to which everyone came; you knew you would see your friends there. Sometimes you would go in to talk to your friends in a hallway and never made it to dance, because you ended up just talking to your friends in the hallway.
There were whole club scenes happening around that time, too. So we could take those club artists into our programming. For example, “Anthony and the Johnsons.” Since Anthony was doing performances at midnight on Mondays at the Pyramid Club, just a few blocks away from PS122, we brought him to have his shows at PS122. Now "Anthony and the Johnsons" are playing at the Radio City Music Hall…!
Don't you miss that wild scene? I don't think that kind of thing and stories can happen in New York these days.
Not in Manhattan, but a scene probably is happening somewhere far out in Brooklyn, where there is a loft and someone must be making something happen. They are just not inviting me. (laugh) I miss the days when Manhattan was the center, and I feel I was lucky to be there at that time and to be a caretaker of the scene.
At a certain point PS122 became a very crowded tent, so I had more talks with artists, saying, "You should go out and find your next venues," rather than saying, "You should come back again.” If the artist is strong enough, I wanted them to shake up the outside world, not just us. I didn't want them to stay, though some artists who would be happy to keep having shows just at PS122 got confused by my words. But it was about encouraging and supporting artists. I was very proud that I didn't let PS122 become a ride with only one scene, and that PS122 provided an incubator function.
Would you name some big-name artists that you are proud of finding their talent and helping to pioneer their successful career?
No one ever really owns artists. There is always someone before you who also helped them. But I was excited to work with Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Eddy Izzard, and Blue Man Group. In Dance, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Doug Varone, Ronald K. Brown. And from Japan, there was Dumb Type and Min Tanaka. Of course, I didn't start "Min Tanaka," but we were considered his home.
How did you distinguish PS122 from other experimental spaces such as La MaMa, or Dance Theater Workshop?
La MaMa was more for theater, and DTW was for dance. Each of us handled each different little area, and some artists were crossover. For example, take Blue Man Group. PS122 was helping them quite a bit to put their show together. Then they went to La MaMa for completing their show because La MaMa was able to give them a room for three weeks to decorate however they wanted to, which I was not able to do. After La MaMa they moved to the Astor Place Theater [which is now their permanent home theater].
Where and how did you find those young artists? Did you do studio visits?
I was out almost every night to see new shows, or people were coming and talking to me. Also I was getting videotapes, but I didn't see many of them. I eventually began to feel very intuitive – as far as things like who had a good idea and whether I trusted that artist. And if I did, I would tell him, "Here is the weekend and here is some money. Come to PS122 and do something. The gig might fail, but I would say, "Don't worry, let's try again and do another weekend.” I did this for Elevator Repair Service [NY-based experimental theater
ensemble), which is another group that I am proud of working with. I didn't understand the first three shows they did at PS122. But, I just kept giving them chances because I knew there was something going on.
How did you justify presenting shows that you were not so convinced with but you still had to get audience for?
It was often the case that young artists in the city had friends who just graduated from college and had a lot of free time. They were all interested in what was going on and going to each other’s shows. We had never had a problem with the 1st show. But if the audience come back to the 2nd show or 3rd show, that was the big question. By the 2nd or 3rd show, the artist had to start reaching their real audience. With the Elevator Repair Service, there was always audience.
Who did you learn all those things from? Who did you listen to?
I wasn't listening to many mentors. What I was listening to for the most part was artists, because PS122 was their place and I was just running it. I asked them, "Where do you want to go?
” So, my relationship with artists then was very different from the one I have now.
Through that relationship with artists, there was one important thing that I noticed. When an artist went away on tour and came back home, his work had grown. So I set up "PS122 Field Trips" so that they could tour at an earlier phase, they would get to know other communities and other reactions to their work. It was in the mid 80's through mid-90s. We went out all over the place.
The tours were formed as a shared program. That is, three or four artists, such as Blue Man Group, Holly Hughes, Ron Brown, Danny Hoch – were in one program. If I just bring Holly Hughes, the program would not get enough audience, but when I brought "PS122 Field Trips," which was an assorted box, it could get enough audience. What happened was that the venues that presented the "PS122 Field Trips" brought back those artists for their own gigs later, because the artists built up recognition in that community.
Then I helped to build a "world of PS122" in other cities – such as helping to start the "Off The Wall" performance series at Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh by curating programs. And we did a festival in Austin, Texas, called "Fresh Terrain Festival.” It's a terrible name, isn't it? It was supposed to be "Under The Radar.” I brought it up at a meeting but everybody said, "Oh, that's crap.” (laugh) It was 2003, and in 2004 I left PS122.
Why did you leave PS122? Did you want to move on to run a larger theater complex or festival in other cities?
My whole retirement plan was to die at PS122. I had a dream of large theater things and I was interested in taking pieces out and finding other venues. But, I was pretty happy with what I was doing at PS122. With 80 seats and 100 seats, I could try out many things, and I was not having a hard time getting people to come. But my board had different ideas. When you run your organization for many years, the board would be thinking, "Is that his place or our place?.” That happens. I had been at PS122 for 21 years. I ran up against the young board. It was very painful. I arranged to leave PS122, but instead of stopping I just kept going. I started consulting and programming for other venues and festivals in New York and other places.
Let's get back to talking about UTR festival. It started with a focus on American work and the festival was only for one week. But, now it has many international works over a two-week run. Does UTR now aim to be an international festival or is it just a matter of growing?
I wove international works in even in the 1st year, which included people from Russia. The 2nd year's focus was international, but I wove American artists' work in. Then the 3rd year, we started making more of a mix. So the festival is always international and national, because I want American work to bump up against international work.
There is a sort of similar world in independent artists everywhere, searching and trying to make work on a smaller scale that connects with contemporary audiences in different ways. In this sense UTR festival, which focuses on small-scale theater work, is really a local grassroots cultural exchange to show what is really going on in the mind of young people in that country. And I think theater works best at that kind of exchange because it is very guerrilla and of the moment..
But what do you think about the language issue when presenting international theater work in America? Americans, in general, are not so tolerant with non-English productions.
In the last 10 years, technology made it possible to supertitle pieces. It used to be that you had slides for supertitles, which was really cranky, or simultaneous translation, which was ugly. But now just having a PowerPoint and video projectors makes a huge difference. If you can see a foreign movie, you can see foreign theater. Supertitles may not present all of the nuances that Toshiki Okada
is trying to say in Japanese, but you can get the shape of it, and it still tells me something really key about: a) Japanese identity; b) the situation in Japan and; c) the global situation.
So you believe that just with translations any foreign theater work can communicate with people in a different language.
I am optimistic – or may be naïve. If it is really a good work, usually it connects with much more universal resonance. Sometimes I go and see things and feel, "Oh no, this play is dealing with conversation that only works in Poland, and it's not ready to come out here.” But other times I say, "Oh, they are talking about immigration issues in Poland but it has resonance in the U.S.!” That's what I have to try to figure out.
But when you go to see things in Europe, they have supertitles but only in French and German, or Dutch – quite often no English. What do you do?
I work very intuitively. That is, I can feel whether there is a truth from the piece, or not; if the piece would touch my audience, or not. Also I often do triangulation: I talk with people who do understand the language and the work. They can tell me what this is about – and then I would try to figure out how it will lead my audience, and how I need to frame it to my audience. I don't speak French but I helped program the ACT French theater festival in New York, "in 2005, after I left PS122. I discovered several new French groups that have taken off in their careers in the States since then and been quite successful.
Now, let's talk about theater in Japan.
It seems to be a whole other wave coming with interesting artists, right? Toshiki Okada is amazing. Also Daisuke Miura
(Potudo-ru), whose piece "Yume no Shiro
" I saw in Montreal's Festival TransAmeriques – seemed interesting, too, though I am curious about whether I was mostly shocked or intrigued by Daisuke's whole sex thing, or what he really was trying to say something interesting that I didn't know. Anyway, I am interested in where he will go.
My research in Japan is still light. I saw the Saison Foundation's retreat in Japan, which I was thinking of applying to attend. It might be interesting to go just to try to listen and discover what's going on there. But it would be difficult….
Would you tell me more about what is difficult?
Well, I might not have been looking at Japan hard but I don't know about the festivals there, and at least I haven't heard of many people in Japan with whom I can share esthetics. You are one of those people – so if you say go to see this and that, I would certainly take it seriously. But there is no one I can go to in Japan.
In other words, there is no counterpart of mine in Japan. I have my counterparts – presenters and festival leaders – in Belgium, France, Ireland, Poland, Chile and many other places, and they understand about reaching out. I feel my role – and their role as well – is a double one: buying productions and bringing them in, but we are also supporting making relationships. The latter takes a different kind of individual sometimes. But I don't think it is necessarily the case in Japan. If I had counterparts in Japan, when they see the next Toshiki Okada, they would call me and say, "You should see this guy!” That is what I rely on when I chose to go. Over thirty years of doing this; that is how I can do it.
I think the good way to use Japan's resources is to put resources behind the export of work rather than importing other's works. Japan should provide avenues for presenters and producers of other countries to make relationships with their own presenters and producers, as well as artists.
This year's two productions from Japan are the first time for UTR to include works from Japan. Aside from them, Korea's " Wozzeck" was your only UTR program from an Asian country so far.
That's correct. I've been looking into Asian theater really hard. I saw something in Indonesia that I would like to bring in. There was another in Cambodia. But, they are yet to come through. I think Asia is BIG!, but not easy. There are many different languages in Asia, and each culture in each Asian country is really different and works very differently. For example, there is very little [with a work coming from Asia] as compared with a work coming from Europe. Not to mention, it is a long way to go from New York.
Lastly, tell me about your future plans, or dream plan.
My dream plan is to have a festival with "real" money – that is, more than the current $600,000, which covers literally everything, including staff salaries for my assistants and tech directors. I no longer have to worry about my own salary since I am a part of The Public Theater now and they are taking in more and more. But the first few years, I had to raise money even to support myself.
I miss running my own place. I would love to be in the place where I was able to compensate the artists in the way I would like. And I am not now. If I am offered to a position with a theater, infrastructure, support and “real” money, I might consider moving even out of New York City. I am expensive but quite flexible. (laugh)
Seriously, I would like to keep the UTR festival going – trying to make it last long enough so that it can’t go away after I leave. There were various years when I really didn’t know if I would have money to go on. I was always able to raise money in the end, but it has been a constant problem. There have been many festivals that disappeared when funding went away. That could happen to the UTR festival.
One reason I have gone to The Public Theater was that if I am embedded there and they really see the UTR festival as their asset, it would become a tradition – like Christmas. Then they won’t let it go, because they will see it as their great platform. So it will keep going. PS122 did not end when I left. Of course, it has a slightly different vision now, but it still keeps going as a place where I still have to go and see things that I think are important. PS122 is still going – that was one of the things I am most proud of.
Thank you so much for your time and sharing all these interesting stories.