Mothership of a Fleet of Festivals | My First Under the Radar

For Culturebot | Date of publication: Monday February 29, 2016

At the beginning of his show Now I’m Fine, Ahamefule J. Oluo tells us about his boyhood. About the adult men in his family, who all had this passionate relationship with drugs and drink. He goes on a bit about it, and then he suddenly says: ‘They were my mother’s relatives, these men. The white side of the family.’ Oluo pauses, but the embarrassed chuckle in the room proves his audience knows full well what it has coming. ‘You didn’t realise that, did you?,’ says the performer of half-Nigerian, half-white parentage. ‘You assumed it must have been the blacks.’ Indeed we did. ‘Then you’re racists,’ Oluo concludes pointedly, and turns to his big band for another round of boisterous music.

Now I’m Fine was presented during Under the Radar, last January. In several ways, the show could be seen as a pars pro toto of the famous New York festival itself. It turns around the story of Oluo’s life, told by himself, interspersed with music of his own making. Think more Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht than Glen Miller or Dizzie Gillespie. The composer-conductor-performer looks like a much trimmer, up-to-date version of Fats Domino, with his smart suit and playful quiff on his otherwise shaven head. He recounts his life to us in neat chronological order. After each chapter, he simply turns around to conduct his band or play the trumpet, then turns back again to pick up the storytelling. Tempo and delivery are slow and deliberate. The whole blend of the modern and the nostalgic gives Now I’m Fine a lovely old-fashioned feel.

In short, the last thing you would expect to be part of the main program of New York’s oldest and most prominent festival of experimental theatre. Which was exactly the problem, according to the mutterings of some cognoscenti I overheard in the corridors. They found edition 2016 lacking – too safe, too predictable. I cannot judge on that: it was my first ever.

But I can say this. There were a lot of personal life stories around on New York stages that month, in and outside UtR. And gender and race were prominent issues in those stage stories, just like in Now I’m Fine (Oluo also reflects extensively on his manhood, in its various guises of son, brother, high-school nerd, lover, husband and father). Wholly or partly, the same applied to Lars Jan’s The Institute of Memory, Dorothée Munyaneza’s Samedi Détente and Tanya Tagaq’s Nanook of the North, three other main UtR shows, to Sorrow Swag and #negrophobia, part of American Realness in Abrons Arts Centre, and to Sarah Jones’ Sell/Buy/Date in New York Live Arts and Motus’ MDSLX in La MaMa, both presented outside any festival. Gender and race came up as well during UtR’s public talks under the banner Scanning the Landscape. Measured by what people feel passionate about, now and here, the festival’s 2016 line-up was right on the ball.

The vintage feel of Oluo’s show seemed to me just as fitting. After all, this was UtR’s twelfth edition, and festivals come of age, just like human beings. Way back in 2005, founder and artistic director Mark Russell came up with the brilliant idea to hold a festival simultaneous with APAP, the great meat market of American performance art, and present there the kind of shows APAP ignored at the time. The adventurous, avant-garde, cutting-edge – call them what you like. Everything that flew under APAP’s radar – hence the name. All the performing arts professionals participating in APAP would want to come. And they did, in droves. So did the faithful lovers of adventurous theatre, of course. At long last, they got some recognition, and a platform, at a time when public funding and other support for the genre had withered.

But the very success of the formula inevitably led to imitation, or rather, bandwagoning. Under the Radar begot American Realness in Abrons, COIL in PS122 (hosted by others during its renovation), and Prototype, a festival of opera and music theater spread over a number of venues. Attendees of ISPA, the international version of the APAP-market, also became regulars at UtR. And so it happened that January became a frantic fest of adventurous theatre in New York. First in downtown Manhattan, then spreading to Brooklyn, Queens (The Chocolate Factory) and the Bronx. BAAD!, the Bronx Academy for the Arts and Dance, came up with its own brilliant idea: they started busing APAP-participants over to the Bronx, instead of busing themselves to APAP to showcase their stuff to the weary and worn-out punters in the Midtown Hilton.

Many of these offerings felt young and fresh to me. Often younger than Under the Radar’s. But is it fair to hold this against UtR? After all it was the number one, the festival that started all this. The mothership that spawned a whole fleet of spacey theatre vessels, festivals as well as initiatives by individual venues. As I said before, the two shows I was most impressed by were presented outside any festival: Sell/Buy/Date by Sarah Jones in New York Live Arts, and MDLSX by Motus in La MaMa. This is not proof that UtR has grown stale or tired. On the contrary, it is a compliment. Under the Radar has created the current that allowed others to soar.

Photo by Joost Ramaer
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York. © Joost Ramaer


After the recent renovation of The Public Theater, the festival is now held entirely there. The bright white new lobby with the bar in the middle, the balcony overlooking the lobby and the Library bar and restaurant make The Public into a much stronger festival heart. It has become a more inviting place for viewers to meet before and after the shows, and talk them over while enjoying a drink and a bite. But the overhaul could also make the theater, and Under the Radar with it, more respectable, more of an institution. After all, the operation cost forty million dollars, and big money rarely goes hand in hand with radicalization. ‘Some people think that I am boring,’ said Oskar Eustis, The Public’s artistic director, in 2010 to Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker. ‘I am too institutional. I think that is what I have been hired to do.’

But have a closer look at what it is precisely, that Eustis wants to institutionalise. It was he who invited Mark Russell to bring his festival to The Public. UtR has been centered there since the second edition of 2006. This has obvious advantages: the festival can share staff and marketing costs with the theater, apart from using its spaces. Second, Eustis famously wants to make all shows in The Public free. Just like Shakespeare in the Park, the free open-air summer shows at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park – an idea of Eustis’ legendary predecessor Joe Papp that became a hugely popular fixture in the New York theater season. Papp tried to bring theater to the people, and Eustis takes his legacy seriously. Shakespeare in the Park may be free, but its audience has gradually become more and more expensive, in line with the gentrification of Manhattan. To restore Papp’s original mission, Eustis wants his open-air summer circus to branch out to parks in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

While that seems eminently realistic, making all shows free remains utopian, for a long time being. Eustis himself reckons The Public’s endowment needs to grow to at least a hundred million dollars to make universal free entry possible. So far, it has never been bigger than 35 million. Every time Eustis re-airs his favourite balloon in public, The Public’s business managers politely but firmly haul it back to earth. That doesn’t seem to bother the artistic director in the least. He will just keep at it, in his own cheerful way.

Beside his tenacity there is his background in creation. Forty years ago, Oskar Eustis, only eighteen years old at the time, already ran his own avant-garde company, Red Wing, together with Stephan Müller, an equally young Swiss director. The two were invited to create an experimental theater within the Swiss Schauspielhaus Zürich, a powerhouse ‘where several of Brecht’s plays had premiered’, as Mead notes in her interview. Eustis and Müller worked there for two years. Later, Eustis became artistic director of the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco, where he became instrumental in the long gestation of Tony Kushner’s iconic Angels in America.

At The Public, where he replaced George Wolfe in 2004, Eustis launched a series of ventures aimed at creating new work, but always with a link to the theater’s past. The Musical Theatre Initiative picks up where The Public began. The building used to house the Astor Library, also free. But in 1967 it reopened as a theater with the world premiere of the musical Hair. In 2009 Eustis relaunched Hair on Broadway, to general acclaim of critics and the public. The production got exported to London’s West End, and provided The Public with millions of extra cash. Eustis gave Mead the reason why it was so successful: ‘Hair is not merely a period piece about LSD and Vietnam but an expression of a broader desire for cultural and political change.’ Then there is the Shakespeare Initiative, encompassing the planned expansion to Brooklyn and Queens mentioned before, and the Emerging Writers Group, according to Mead ‘a yearlong program for about a dozen young writers that will not only generate new plays for its own stages but will also brand scores of talented writers as Public protégés’.

In short, Oskar Eustis does not look like a man who will allow the renovated Public, and Under the Radar with it, to slowly calcify into mere respectability. Clear evidence of this is the UtR-program in Joe’s Pub, The Public’s night club, a series of smaller-scale shows selected for their ‘re-engineering of the intersection of music and theater’. And the Incoming program, based on UtR’s version of the Emerging Writers Group. They are all based on the same sensible idea: when you grow and get ‘older’ in so many ways, you have to make a conscious effort to remain accessible to the new and the young.

This year marked the second edition of the Incoming series, basically a presentation of works in progress by young artists who would never make the main program in the present state of their professional development. The shows are the end result of the Devise Theatre Working Group (the word ‘devise’ indicates theater created from an idea instead of an existing text). The Devise group is led by Russell’s parting co-director Meiyin Wang. ‘Richard Foreman’s Ontological Theater in St. Mark’s Church used to give young makers a platform where they could develop and show their work,’ Wang explains. But in 2010 Foreman left St. Mark’s, and his successors of the Incubator Arts Project followed suit in 2014. ‘We wanted to create a new place for young artists where they can grow. And also, to increase diversity among the artists and works we present.’

The first edition of Incoming, in 2015, was held at La MaMa Theatre. This year it was brought over to The Public. The formula remained the same. ‘The artists we select, we work with them during five or six months,’ says Wang. ‘The end result of that process is a show for Incoming, but we start with practical issues. This year we discussed, among other topics, aesthetics, copyrights, and things even more straightforward, such as how to write a blurb.’

Photo by Maria Baranova

Photo by Maria Baranova

I saw only one Incoming-show, but that was enough to get the idea: They Are Gone But Here I Must Remain, by Kathryn Hamilton and her group Sister Sylvester. Hamilton spends half her time in New York, half in Istanbul, where she used to have her own theater called KÖŞE (corner). KÖŞE was shut down by the Istanbul police, after a period of ostentatious intimidation by Turkish fascists and the police themselves. They Are Gone is not about gender and race, but ‘examines the relationship between art and rebellion’, as observer Sandi Klein put it.

The piece’s starting point is The Fall, a cult film shot in 1969 by Peter Whitehead, an equally cultish British documentary maker. Whitehead interviewed the leaders of the occupation of Columbia University at the time. According to some, The Fall inspired Greek students to organize the rebellion that toppled the military junta in their country in 1973. In They Are Gone, Hamilton offers a close examination of this Greek connection.

Her show is full of stories, images, characters and theories, conspiratorial or otherwise. Perhaps too full. But it is also clever, dazzling, totally original and, at times, very funny. Whitehead’s film carries a weird scene in which somebody uses a freshly beheaded, white-feathered chicken as a cleaning rug. Hamilton honors it by introducing a live, brown-feathered chicken on stage. The animal is the undisputed star of the show.

Without any hint of shyness or inhibition, she runs around the stage, picks at the feet of the audience in first row and constantly harasses Hamilton for the food she carries in her pocket, to keep her satisfied. But when Kathryn wants her out of the way, she simply plunks a big cardboard box over the chicken, and she remains under it, literally without stirring a feather, until the box is taken away again. Then she resumes her routine. Seamlessly, without a hint of anger of vengeance.

Still, the chicken somehow doesn’t distract from the story Hamilton wants to tell. It is, altogether, quite an astonishing performance. The more so, because the animal was completely untrained for the stage. Hamilton just plucked her from a slaughterhouse. ‘The first chicken we selected in this way soon proved to be completely useless,’ she told me. ‘With this one, it clicked right from the start.’ Apparently, ordinary chickens can be great characters.

And so, unintentionally perhaps, Sister Sylvester made us think about our relationship with the animals we breed as food, or for food, like eggs and milk. That is a different subject than race or gender. But it is just as much on people’s minds, and just as much the focus of new and fresh, less dogmatic approaches. By zooming in on the student protests of almost half a century ago, They Are Gone reminds us of how far we have drifted away from the old movements like feminism and communism. But this does not make us a- or unpolitical, or politically naïve, as the likes of Gloria Steinem would have it.

On the contrary. Politics are everywhere, in the most unexpected corners and moments of our lives. In Hamilton with her chicken, or in Oluo’s nostalgic-romantic-modernist tapestry of life story and Brechtian big band music. ‘My main critique of mainstream theater is that they think the story ends when the show is over,’ said Alok Vaid-Menon of trans South Asian performance art duo DarkMatter during one of the public talks at UtR. ‘That’s actually when it begins! We build and maintain our community via social media, then give them political education. There is no moment in my life, either private or professional, that is not political.’

And playful, Vaid-Menon might have added. Because his brand of politics, as exercised and expressed through his kind of theater, is also funny and sparkly and stirry, in stark contrast to the Steinem way. It makes you feel good. Moved to tears, or wetting your pants. Often both, at the same time. That is what I have come to expect from festivals like these.

And that is what I found at Under the Radar, and its many satellites.

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