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Staying Under the Radar

TheaterMania previews the Public Theater's annual festival of intriguing new works. logo
A scene from Phobophilia
The Under the Radar Festival, which kicks off its 2011 edition on January 5, keeps with Public Theater founder Joe Papp's original vision of creating "theater for all" by presenting an unusual array of productions. "This year's artists use classic texts, puppets, media, sometimes even theater without actors!" exclaims festival producer Mark Russell. "It adds up to an intensive celebration of live theater -- a true festival that can give you new perspectives on theater, on the world, on life."

The festival's many notable offerings this year include Watch Me Work, a free performance that invites theatergoers to observe Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks work on her new play in the lobby of the Public (or even work alongside her); Barry McGovern's adaptation of Samuel Beckett's novel, Watt; John Lipsky's Living in Exile, a retelling of Homer's Iliad starring downtown favorite T. Ryder Smith; and Daniel Kitson's The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, a monologue about a man whose suicide keeps getting interrupted by the world he's trying to leave behind, which will be seen at St. Ann's Warehouse.

One of the most intriguing productions is's Phobophilia, in which 24 audience members will be led blindfolded to an intimate room in the HERE Arts complex. The idea began when Stephen Lawson and his partner Aaron Pollard were commissioned to create a new work for the Biennale de Montreal. "At the time we were dismayed as to how fear had infected every corner and every shadow of our North American society," Lawson explains. "We were questioning our role as political artists and how we might effectively express, in a poetic and tender way, our dismay at the criminal activity being authorized by our governments."

This led the boys to revisit the work of Jean Cocteau. "He is the principal multidisciplinary artist of the 20th Century," says Lawson. "He inspired us with his unique and lyrical approaches to addressing historical moments of societal discord, and we began by studying his storytelling techniques as well as his inventive approaches to the technology of the moving image."

While the pair never ended up completing a piece for the biennial, they developed it with the assistance of Studio 303, a multi-disciplinary arts center in Montreal, which allowed them to work through their own fears of requesting intense audience participation while keeping their sense of humor intact. "Of course, the irony of having to confront our own internalized fears during the creation of a new work that explores the larger thematic of terror and panic in our contemporary society has not been lost on us!" says Lawson.

A scene from Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good)
(© David Baltzer)
UK and German artist collective Gob Squad's contribution to the festival, Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good), began with a desire to create a "live film," a seemingly contradictory impulse for a theatrical work. Sean Patten describes the piece as an experience that "needed the audience to play a part in it so it can get to the end of the story, but we quickly lost interest in making something which followed the dominant cinema narrative of heroes and villains and lovers and losers. Not because that isn't fertile ground for artists; it's just we had explored that quite a lot in previous projects."

Soon, they were looking at Andy Warhol's experimental films and screen tests. "Some of us had a vague memory of seeing Warhol's Kitchen -- or was it just an excerpt in a documentary?" recalls Patten. This confusion led to the desire to recreate the film on stage. "We just jumped right in and the disputes and disagreements about 'how it really was' became the kernel of the idea for this show," he adds.

Musician Nora York created Jump (along with book writer David Greenspan and co-composer Jamie Lawrence) to explore the music of Puccini's Tosca. It also looks at actress Sarah Bernhardt, who played the classic role for 30 years; in fact, York and Greenspan's title refers to the performance where Bernhardt actually leapt off the stage balcony in the final scene of the opera. "The project began as a musical idea for me: 'How could I work with operatic material in the same way as I had done other radical musical interpretive projects?" says York. "And many of the original songs are sung by me, which offers the audience an opportunity to view the character of Tosca through a decidedly contemporary lens."

Playwright Tommy Smith and Reggie Watts drew their inspiration for Dutch A/V from an idea to capture a trip to Amsterdam using hidden spy cameras they would wear throughout their visit. "We kind of came up with an idea to utilize that footage and create something around the idea of drifting around the city, and on a larger scale, drifting around the world and randomly going places," Watts explains. "It's almost like a travelogue. There's a slight story happening, but it's mostly about the idea of drifting. Time is definitely not a linear thing. It's all about these experiences."

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