A Conversation with Mark Russell
Written by Corey Ruzicano
Art by Michelle Tse
Photography by Michelle Tse
January 2, 2017
In the dying fire of 2016 we met in the heart of the Public Theater to speak with Mark Russell, the Festival Director of the Under the Radar Festival. UTR itself is a conversation, within each piece and across artists and disciplines, and Mark Russell has been orchestrating this dialogue for over a decade. He reminds us that a festival is a celebration. Always and especially in our current climate, art gives us the opportunity to tell the truth in ways we don’t expect and that is certainly something worth celebrating.
As I look into the darkened unknown of 2017, it is in conversations like these, about and in the art and truth that I find hope.
Corey Ruzicano: I would love to start by talking about what it means to be a curator. From PS. 122 and Portland and now the Public, what are some of the things you’ve learned and what values have become important to you, as a curator?
Mark Russell: Well, curator is an interesting word. I’ve never really embraced the word “curator”; I usually call myself a programmer, because I feel I’m just a lens on what’s going on and I’m trying to reflect that. And in theater, where this stuff moves around a lot, if I wanted to do my Blue Period or my All Hamlet Festival, it would take so much money to make it happen. So I have to be really open and available to what’s going on. The real agenda of the Under the Radar Festival is to give a snapshot of what we think is going on in performance and new theater around the world.
CR: What role does this medium play during any current event, but particularly this current political climate? What can you speak to with a festival that you couldn’t speak to in the same way with a house that has more established yearlong programming? What tools does the festival give you to react?
MR: Well, you know festivals are celebrations, they are a time when you can break the rules. Either it’s celebrating bringing in the crops or Lent or having a whole bunch of bands together, and this one is all about the theater community. It’s a time when we throw away the rules, go binge on theater, bring together that community around it, and join it. It’s also open for people around the city to join in the celebration. Within celebrations, especially theater celebrations, there is room for sadness and anger and loss and poignancy, but coming together is the force of the festival. There’s a lot of need. I feel a need to come together with these people.
CR: Absolutely, I think there’s been so much interesting talk about how the language of our country has become a utilitarian one, that we’ve made a shift away from the communal and spiritual-based vocabularies of the past, and I come to theater the way I think a lot of people go to church. I’m interested in how you’ve come to define that idea of community for yourself and how you’ve built the community for this event?
MR: The community sort of built itself and I’ve been adding on, of course, drawing in the artists and what they bring to it. Sometimes the festival can sort of shift in communities, in what it’s addressing and who comes. It’s interesting because I didn’t know what to expect this year. I thought, either it’s going to be really happy and joyous or we could be despondent, we could be bored—we just didn’t know. And then when this election happened, when certain things happen, I looked around at the work that we had invited and thought, yes, it’s going to fit. In fact, in this room are going to be 600 Highwaymen, where the audience makes the show themselves, and in that sense it’s all about community and how far you can push it and stretch it—what our agency is in community. I’m very happy about what this festival will say in January in all its different parts. The Bengsens are more about the joy.
CR: Yeah, Hundred Days is such a celebration of life.
MR: And I need that as well.
CR: What’s it like to have all these different voices and vocabularies speaking together in one conversation and how do you go about orchestrating a conversation like that?
MR: If I knew the conversation, I would be bored, so I’m just waiting to see what this festival is going to say along with everybody else. I have a few more clues than most people, but actually, when you start to go through these festivals, there’s a different thread and you go, oh everyone’s about missing dad. All these different themes and threads come out. And actually we’re gonna do this: Jeanie O’Hare, the new dramaturg, is going to do a special event called “The Sweep” and it’s going to be in this room. She’s going to be embedded throughout the festival and then talk about the different themes that she sees and allow everyone to join in on the last Saturday of the festival to talk about what they saw.
CR: What else are you excited about this year?
MR: Oh gosh. This year we have more things being made for the festival than ever before.
CR: Oh really, what is that process like?
MR: It’s like commissioning 600 Highwaymen, which is our centerpiece, but also things like Club Diamond, which began as a workshop last year and is now a full blown, beautiful piece that we’ve helped shepherd to get there. I have an associate that I work with, Andrew Kircher, who sort of acts as a producing dramaturg for all these pieces. So we get into some of the technical challenges but also the dramaturgical, the textual, the larger challenges within each piece, and I’m very excited that all of them are coming together. Keith Wallace is taking a piece that is a promenade piece for basketball courts that he was doing in San Diego, and we’re taking it and making it into an actual sit down piece and trying to make that crossover, and of course it will really be a different piece when it gets here. I’m really excited about it. It means that this piece, which is one of the strongest Black Lives Matter pieces I’ve seen, is going to reach more people, and I think that’s even more important than the interactive version.
CR: So what is that submission process like? How do you go about choosing which voices you give a platform to?
MR: Now I’d have to shoot you. I’m not an intellectual curator, I’m more “go from the gut” and “I feel like…” I see something and think, “This is a voice that my community of Under the Radar needs, those that have been there and those that I want to reach out to and bring into the room, those people need this part of the conversation.” I spend all year looking for it, I travel places, people send me videotapes, I have a lot of spies around the world that call me up and say, “This is the piece you want.” I’ve been doing it a while and there’s a flow to it. I’m also thinking of pieces for ‘18 and ‘19. I think of it as a privileged position, of course. It’s a joy. I work with a lot of people to make this happen; it isn’t me coming down from the mountain. I’m working with people like Andrew or my producers Ellen Dennis and Lily Lamb-Atkinson. It’s a conversation, and at the end I end up taking responsibility for it, so someone can hate me. We try and create a shape, you need a little bit of joy like the Hundred Days, and you also need a little bit of beauty like Manuel Cinema’s Lula Del Ray, or Club Diamond, and then you need to look into pieces that are taking the form and stretching it like Gardens Speak, which is about Syrian martyrs and is the most powerful piece I saw this year. It doesn’t have any actors in it, it’s more of an installation piece and I’m really excited about it. We have interactive pieces like 600 Highwaymen which is all about community and the piece that we’re doing out in the Brooklyn Museum in the Egyptian wing by Rimini Protokoll called Top Secret International (State I), and by the end of that you’ll think of everyone as spies. It’s about the spying community, and you actually do a little spying yourself in and amongst this beautiful exhibit of Egyptian antiquities.
CR: It’s so interesting to get to see the vernacular of a piece like that in relation to different mediums. I always feel the most fulfilled when I can see the shoulders that people are standing on, not just theatrically but visually or aurally, etc.
MR: Under the Radar is dealing with a lot of cross disciplinary things, which is really where a lot of the inspiration goes or a lot of the rules get broken. And that transgression opens up a certain truth, and that’s what I’m interested in.
CR: I love that idea of truth, especially in this era where truth feels like a really rare commodity, or maybe that it’s over produced and so people are inundated and oversaturated with it.
MR: We’re in the KMart of Truth.
CR: Exactly, Ira Glass, before the election, said, “it’s easier than ever to check if a fact is true and facts matter less than ever.” I’m interested in how theater can speak to the art of telling truths in interesting and unexpected ways. I wonder if you could talk about how the festival gets at that.
MR: Again it’s something that we try to feel. Sometimes things can be all about facts. Rimini Protokoll has tapes in it from Edward Snowden. Or it can be completely fantastical, an artificial world, but get at a core, human truth, a more spiritual truth that we know and can share. That’s what we’re going for. When I’m in a room and I feel that or I feel an artist going toward that, that’s where we want to go and those are the people we try to include in this thing. Marga Gomez is doing a solo performance piece, but it’s so much about gentrification and loss and all the things that are going on in San Francisco, in her hometown, but also about her missing her dad who was this crazy Latin music star.
CR: I’m interested still in how, as a programmer, when you talk about this community, a lot of which has built itself, how do you go about knowing them? Even practically, how do you get to know them and how do you speak with and about them?
MR: Once the festival starts I spend most of my time in the lobby. I feel like I’m meeting that community while trying to expand on who else we need to include. It’s interesting to see who selects and makes the effort to come and who does not. We have a lot of opportunities to exchange and speak after shows, we meet in our reading room and talk. In some ways festivals are transient communities. You’ll go and say, I saw you at that show, what did you think? The whole idea is to see more than one show and join this thing, this celebration, and then it all goes away. Hopefully they come back next year, or maybe find themselves at a mainstage Public Theater show, but the main experience is the festival. A lot of these names are not known at all but they’re all really interesting artists and they have a lot to say, and the audience is taking a risk with them. The way I book these things is by imagining how I see or want to see New York City. I want it to reflect everything. I want it to be queer, I want it to be multicultural, to have passion, to have energy. That’s how I put this together. And sometimes I look at it, I looked at it in July, and we realized something was missing. By the end of August we found something, took the whole festival, turned it upside down and put this other thing in it. It really stretched us, but that’s how we make this soup.
CR: I just want to ask you why you love theater? Why have you stuck with this?
MR: I started as a theater director and now I’m directing a theater. I’m just honored that I get paid to do this. I’ve always been about bringing people together, at one point I think I could have gone into the church if I’d believed in that Jesus story. I think that could have been a lot easier and with a better health plan. In some ways it’s a lot of that, I’m tending to a flock.
CR: You have a congregation.
MR: And these vessels, these places where people meet, there’s such history. It’s an honor to be building on top of that and answering to that.
CR: And continuing its relevance.
CR: And since you’ve gotten to travel and see art all over the world, what do you hope New York City can learn from the art of other countries?
MR: Well, one particular one that’s very relevant here–and let’s hope it doesn’t get this bad–but the Belarus Free Theatre is a truly underground theater. We talk about underground theater, but they are truly underground. If they do anything and the authorities find out, they arrest the audience and the actors. I went to Minsk and I saw this piece, Time of Women, and I’ve tried to recreate as much as I can, except the police part, the experience of going to see one of their pieces. It’s kind of like seeing a Birdman movie, you’re so close to these great actresses and the story is so powerful. This one is about women journalists that were arrested and questioned and toyed with and eventually got out, but when the regime began to down the hammer, they were there and this is their real experience. I could have done this in a room where I could get 200 people, but instead I’m doing it in a room where I can get 49. Makes it tough. We’re doing lots of shows of it. God forbid we have to actually go underground considering certain people’s lack of allowing diverse voices or hearing answers they don’t like. It’s a cautionary tale. These things happen. When I came in on Nov. 9, I was walking in here and I ran into Gale Papp, Joe Papp’s widow, and said, “Gosh this just reminds me of the night when Reagan got in.” And she said, “It reminds me of Mccarthy.” That put it in a whole new perspective.
CR: It will be interesting to see artists either continue to play like they did in the Mccarthy Era or have to invent a new way to exist as we move forward.
MR: It brings up, where are you going to stand? What are your limits?
CR: The lines are getting drawn.
MR: The lines are getting drawn. With whom do you collaborate, how do you collaborate and to what level? These questions I hoped I’d never have to answer. It’s been luxurious, we haven’t been put on the line, but that could be happening in our world and I hope something like this begins to get people thinking about those things because those questions are coming.
CR: What are those questions you’re having to grapple with as you build this festival and exist within this particular community?
MR: I’m always trying to keep this community a bit on edge and challenged, so it goes both ways. I don’t want us to feel comfortable downtown. I don’t want it to feel like, we’re all friends and we all laugh at each other’s jokes … I’m not interested in that work, I’m always looking for the group that’s trying to crack out of that and at the same time doing really professional and important work. I think those questions haven’t been asked yet, and who knows how they’ll show up as questions and how we will be asked to put ourselves on the line. We’ve been watching this, Mitt Romney shows up for the circus, how does he sleep with himself at night after this experience of being stumped by Trump? Are we going to be considered irrelevant to this world? Rudy Guiliani came down on a bunch of work during his administration, not as much performance as visual artwork that he thought was disgusting and should be shuttered, and it took the artist community coming together and saying no. There will be an economic effect, they can take away the money. I’m thinking about the people in the middle of the country, across the country, those are the real trenches. It’s unlikely that we’ll feel it in the same way. We might get threatened, but it’s going to be hard for them to affect us financially. But in Iowa it’s different. You could be driving home and someone could egg your house, and just as you watch the few protesters in the Trump rallies that were pushed and shoved and abused as they were going—it’s trying to keep a perspective on all that.
CR: Exactly, I keep thinking about the short game and the long game and how you balance those two things when it feels like a state of emergency, like there’s only time for the short game, but that’s not necessarily going to best serve us. I’m trying to look for balance in how to approach both of those things, and I’m sure for someone who is programming for this moment right now as well as in the future, there are a lot of ingredients that have to get balanced. How do you define success for this festival?
MR: Well I have to say one of the most successful moments we’ve ever had was getting Belarus Free Theatre out of the country right after they’d been arrested and they had to go through safe houses and safe cars and not ride the train, etc. and we reworked their visas to actually get them here. So it was the first time that we were more on the front page than the Arts & Leisure page. That was one of the most striking moments in our history. I love it when shows really resonate. HuffPost just put one of our shows that we did so, so far last year, Germinall, as one of their favorite shows. I love that. These things really do land and stay with people.
CR: In a world where we’re constantly inundated with headlines that aren’t physical, that you can’t touch, so often the only thing that does stick is story. So how do you find the stories and get them to the people that need them? Do you have any advice for this up and coming generation, in this field, in this time?
MR: I have really high hopes for this generation. The people that I’ve met and that work with me are so much more savvy and know better how to take care of themselves in the long run that I have really high hopes that they will be a great resistance. There is a spine. I’m excited to see how they’re going to deal with this because there will be some marching in the streets, but it’s going to take totally new tactics that we don’t even know about to get actual things done and to keep everyone together and safe. I have great hopes and I listen and that’s what I’m trying to put forward.
Mark Russell created the Under the Radar Festival in 2005. The Festival moved to The Public in 2006 and became an integral part of its season. From 1983-2004, Russell was the Executive Artistic Director of Performance Space 122 (P.S. 122).