For Under the Radar, the Experiment Is Over, for Now

Mark Russell, a performance art curator and former artistic director of Performance Space 122, debuted the first Under the Radar in January 2005. A scrappy, shimmering mishmash of mostly American experimental work, the festival occupied St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, with satellite productions elsewhere. There was theater, there was dance, there was work that fell between and among mediums.

Oskar Eustis, then the newly appointed artistic director of the Public Theater, attended that iteration, which presented an early version of Elevator Repair Service’s “Gatz.” He invited Russell to bring the festival to the Public the following year.

“It was the first artistic choice I made,” Eustis said in a recent phone interview. But after 17 years and 16 festivals, the Public has made a different choice. During a mid-May meeting, Russell was informed that the Public, citing financial reasons, would not produce the festival in 2024 and that Russell’s employment at the theater would soon be terminated.

Russell, reached by video call in Brussels, where he was scouting new work at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, had a bittersweet reaction.

“I’m really proud of the work we did. And I have a total respect for the Public,” he said. “It wasn’t a choice I would have made. But that’s the choice they had to make.”

Under the Radar, or UTR, was founded as both a celebration and a canny act of service. It was scheduled in January, to dovetail with the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. The festival enabled artists to attract the attention of thousands of visiting presenters, who might then offer vital commissions and tours. It has included local artists and companies like Taylor Mac, Young Jean Lee, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Reggie Watts and 600 Highwaymen who were programmed alongside international work.

UTR was soon joined by related festivals — Coil, American Realness, Other Forces, and later Prototype and the Exponential Festival. Most of those have shuttered.

The online reaction to the news that UTR might meet this same fate was a mix anger and melancholy, with many responding not only to the Public’s decision, but also seemingly to the feeling that New York City has become a less hospitable place for artistic experimentation.

A number of festival participants recently spoke about what inclusion in UTR had meant. The festival, many said, had introduced them to the work of international artists. It had secured them lucrative touring contracts. It had made them feel as if, after working at the margins, they finally belonged within a larger conversation.

“It was inspiration, connection and communion all at once,” Paul Thureen, a founder of the devised theater group the Debate Society, wrote in an email. The group presented “Blood Play” at UTR in 2013.

Kelly Copper, a founder of the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, described the festival’s economic impact. “It gave us access to a worldwide audience,” she wrote, “and enabled us, after years of struggling from show to show, to finally support ourselves.” Its “Pursuit of Happiness” appeared at UTR in 2018.

While a statement released Wednesday described UTR as “on hiatus” from the Public, Eustis clarified that he could not promise when or if the festival might continue there. “Because we feel like this is a time of real structural change,” he said, on a joint call with the Public’s executive director, Patrick Willingham.

They outlined the theater’s financial circumstances — increased expenses, audience numbers that remain below prepandemic levels, sluggish philanthropic giving. Prepandemic, the Public’s annual budget was approximately $60 million. Now it is $48 million.

UTR had an annual budget of about $1 million, excluding salaries and operating costs. Artist fees were small and many international shows were sponsored by their home countries, but like every show at the Public the festival lost money.

“It was designed to give our artists their celebration,” Russell said. “When would you have a party and expect to come away with money? We had really good parties.”

Ending UTR was, Eustis said, the most visible and the most painful effect of this budget contraction. Because the Public is a presenting theater for the festival rather than a creative or originating theater, it sacrificed UTR while retaining in-house programs like the Mobile Unit and Public Works.

Still, Eustis did not underestimate the festival’s significance for the city’s artistic life. “It made a huge difference to not only the ecology of the downtown scene, but also to the international communication among artists,” he said, also noting that as other festivals and spaces closed or scaled back, Under the Radar became even more important.

As it remains important, Russell, who owns the intellectual property rights to the festival, is in conversation with venues and potential producers, seeking a way forward.

“I’m feeling relieved and hopeful at the changes that could come,” he said last week. “Because it does feel like we need new strategies to make a festival work in this city. We’ve proven that people are hungry for a festival. So now what do we do with that energy? That energy has to go somewhere.”

Alexis Soloski has written for The Times since 2006. As a culture reporter, she covers television, theater, movies, podcasts and new media. @Asoloski

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