Under the Radar Festival: In Memoriam

Under the Radar, the oldest and largest theater festival in New York City, is no more. Over its eighteen years, the festival, run by the Public Theater, presented cutting-edge theater by more than 200 companies from more than 40 countries (see samples below.) The 18th festival this past January — “19 Days at 6 venues featuring over 36 artists from 9 countries” — was the last one. We didn’t know this until June 1, 2023 when the Public Theater announced its 2023-2024 season, and the festival it began in 2006 was simply not mentioned.

After my inquiry, a public relations manager told me: “The Public has made the difficult decision for UTR to go on hiatus, with no expected return date at this time.”

“It’s entirely a financial decision,” Oskar Eustis, the Public’s artistic director, told the New York Times. “This does not mean the Public is abandoning its relationship with downtown experimental artists, but we’re going to be looking for a new way of embodying that.”

Under the Radar is not the first of the January festivals to shut down for financial reasons. A decade ago, there were at least eight festivals every January, timed to the presence of thousands of members of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters here each year for their convention. The festivals were welcomed each year anew by local theatergoers, who were more than fine with the experimental, mixed-genre, multimedia approach and international flavor of much of the work. The cheaper ticket prices were nice too: Most were $25 or under; some were free. But one by one, the festivals shut down — COIL, American Realness, Special Effects — followed by the pandemic-induced cancellations in 2022. This year, there were just four festivals in January: The Exponential, Prototype, Origin 1st Irish  — and  Under the Radar. The difference is that Under the Radar is the only one of the shuttered festivals backed by a behemoth.

Here is Mark Russell, the festival’s director, explaining Under the Radar in 2013. “Under the Radar focuses on independent theater or homeless theater. They don’t have their own theaters. ..Each year we ask a question: Why do theater now?..Festivals have a way of creating culture around them…”

2013: Arguendo: Is Nudity Constitutional? Elevator Repair Service re-enactment of the 1991 oral arguments of a high court case about the legality of nude dancing in Indiana. (It was presented as a work in progress at the festival. My review is of the finished production later that year.)

2014: Rodney King. Roger Guenveur Smith, who previously presented a solo show of Black Panther Huey Newton, now presented the life of Rodney King, the man whose beating at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department, captured on video, sparked the Los Angeles riots.

2015: Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1900s-1950s

2016: Germinal : Creating the world. Starting on an empty stage, with a mix of visual art, theater, music, and sociology, four performers construct the world, along with its “laws of physics, philosophy, music, language, and social interaction.”

2017: Time of Women: Belarus Free Theatre Vs. Tyranny

Lula Del Ray: Manual Cinema Made on Stage Before Our Eyes

2018: Pursuit of Happiness at Under the Radar: Hilarious Poke at Westerns, War Pics by Nature Theater of Oklahoma

2019: Minefield: Actual Enemy Combatants Meet and Make Theater

2020: Feos. Two ugly puppets meet and mate

The Shadow Whose Prey The Hunter Becomes. A Play By and About The Disabled

2021: Capsule, Espiritu, Incoming (all free and all online)


The Indigo Room

Otto Frank by Roger Guenveur Smith,

 KLII. King Leopold’s atrocities revisited.

Moby Dick

Are we not drawn onward to new erA

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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