In 2003, Mark Russell left PS122 (formerly known as Performance Space 122) to curate conferences that would put acclaimed downtown artists like The Wooster Group on the regional and international maps. Having had his finger on the pulse of New York City’s experimental, interdisciplinary theatre scene for 21 years as head of that company, he was passionate about giving the work a larger platform.
What he ended up creating, however, was a festival—a really good one. Following the first-ever Under the Radar at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater’s then newly appointed artistic director, invited Russell to bring the event to The Public as part of its winter season. Now UTR celebrates its 16th year, having expanded from a six-day event to a renowned two-week destination festival that attracts artists, industry pros, and theatregoers from around the world.
UTR is still focused on showcasing work to regional and international presenters. The festival is attached to JanArts, an annual gathering of more than 45,000 performing arts leaders, artists, and enthusiasts from across the globe who converge in New York to experience new work across theatre, dance, opera, and music. A smaller segment, “the more adventurous,” says Russell, visit UTR. The festival also conducts its own three-day symposium, in which presenters are taken through shows and given the chance to be in conversation with the artists. “The conference is still buried in there,” says Russell. “There’s a professional side, and a side that’s really trying to engage with New York much more.”
For Russell, the magic of UTR is in the way it infuses the community with the vitality of highly collaborative, devised work from around the world. “It’s about this longer, wider conversation about theatre,” says Russell. “There are major artists that have come through UTR that have impacted the field here… [We’re asking] Why do theatre now? Why continue with this old form and how do we engage with it now?” While scouring for artists year-round, these are the questions Russell considers of every production he programs.
This year’s UTR lineup is a tapestry of performances by some of the brightest minds working in the field. Shows on offer include Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play Grey Rock alongside Ahamefule J. Oluo’s darkly comic musical portrait of his mother, Susan. Australian ensemble Back to Back returns with The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the story of five activists with intellectual disabilities, and Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang bring audiences a new virtual reality experience with To the Moon.
“I think this work is very primally theatre,” says Russell. “It often reduces it to just the basics of theatre: someone telling you a really good story, and usually in an out-of-the-box way.”