Features Published 12 January 2016

January in NYC: A smorgasbord of theater festivals

This month is all about survival of the fittest in NYC, as industry professionals and audiences alike gather for 12 separate conferences and festivals of bold new work. Molly Grogan interviews some of the curators involved.
Molly Grogan
The cast of The Good Swimmer at Prototype Festival. Photo: Cory Weaver.

The cast of The Good Swimmer at Prototype Festival. Photo: Cory Weaver.

The biggest convergence of performance artists and professionals in the world is taking place in New York City right now, far from Broadway’s bright lights. Never heard of it? You won’t be alone. This event doesn’t go by a single name, although the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) is trying a new moniker, “January in NYC,” for this two-week long convergence of 12 festivals and conferences that draws in an estimated 45,000 artists, professionals and audiences.

The pros are here for two major forums: APAP’s 59th annual members conference and the International Society for the Performing Arts’ (ISPA) 68th New York congress.  With a collective 127-year history, these two forums are pivotal engagements for arts presenters from around the country and the world.  They come for the professional development and networking, but these would be abstract exercises without some shows to see. Beginning in 2005, an arts marketplace began to grow up around APAP and ISPA. Today, that includes four festivals: The Public Theater’s Under the Radar, P.S. 122‘s COIL, Abrons Arts Center’s American Realness and HERE’s Prototype. Those are just the best known of the draws, however: concurrent events are hosted for dance (at the Joyce Theater), chamber music and jazz, as well.

If Edinburgh Fringe is the bigger public event, festival organizers and presenters here agree that the New York smorgasbord is hands-down the best for quality. The reason is that, unlike the Fringe, all of these festivals are curated, which means the shows are held to increasingly rigorous standards.

It hasn’t always been that way, though. According to Vallejo Gantner, Artistic Director of P.S. 122 and COIL’s curator, before the advent of Under the Radar and COIL, “a horrible showcase culture” existed around the professional forums, where very short works, lasting only a few minutes sometimes, were thrown one after the other at conference-weary presenters. That, he said, was “the worst possible way to get into a dialogue with an artist and a work and what it was and how it should be experienced.”

Curating tomorrow’s artists

Now I'm Fine at Under The Radar. Photo: Kelly O

Now I’m Fine at Under The Radar. Photo: Kelly O

Today, curators like Gantner and Meiyin Wang and Mark Russell, who co-curate Under the Radar, are ultra-sensitive to the challenge of showing new work to presenters from around the world; a misstep here could handicap an artist for the rest of his or her career, Gantner said, something curators try to avert through close nurturing of work and careful choices about what gets seen, how and when.

Under the Radar’s Devised Theater Initiative (DTI) is one example of an approach to that question that is bearing results. The Public Theater’s website describes DTI as a year-round commitment “to the exploration of new modes of creating and supporting work, and the creation of systems to support the full life of a project, from inception to production and beyond.” Proof that DTI is accomplishing what it set out to do, Under the Radar last year started  INCOMING!, a sort of “fringe” to its main programming, where a select group of DTI artists, known as the Devised Theater Working Group, can show in-process work. This year, two artists from DTI are included in UTR’s main programming: DarkMatter and Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble.

Discussing the genesis of INCOMING!, Wang explained, “In terms of the mission [of UTR], for ten years we had been presenting works that had already been staged and refined and finished in a way. Looking out into the future, [Mark and I] just thought there was more responsibility that the festival and the Devised Theater Initiative had to take in terms of supporting their investigations and engagements.”

Kathryn Hamilton, whose company, Sister Sylvester, presents “They Are Gone But Here Must I Remain,” as part of INCOMING! this year, explained for me that the Devised Theater Working Group meets once a month to discuss practical and artistic questions, both among the artists and between them, Wang, Russell and Andrew Kircher, UTR’s Associate Director. Calling the group an “anchor in the city,” she described it as an “incredibly supportive” community whose biggest strength is its interdisciplinarity, allowing the members to learn from both “points in common and a lot of different perspectives on things too.”

Another part of the equation when it comes to supporting new work is the diversification and specialization of the festival scene. In this constellation, theater is showcased by Under the Radar, more edgy, inter- and trans-disciplinary work tends to be the domain of COIL, American Realness has become January’s dance and queer performance festival while the newcomer on the scene, Prototype, has filled in the gap for music/opera theater.

In its fourth season, Prototype may have its finger on something: the festival has been called “bracingly innovative” and “indispensable” by the New York press. Sensing an opportunity perhaps, Meiyin and Russell are launching this year a collaboration with Joe’s Pub, called “In Concert” to examine intersections between music and theater.  Gantner similarly revealed a desire to bring “more of a musical emphasis” back to COIL.

In an email, Kim Whitener, Producing Director of HERE and Co-Director of Prototype helped explain what all the fuss is about: “Early-to-mid-career artists of the kind we work with are breaking open all the established forms and doing a brilliant job at bringing contemporary inputs into the mix – in the case of music, pop and rock idioms, multi-media and electronics – and blending them with classical voice and music forms. It’s an extremely exciting time in contemporary performance in general, and opera-theater in particular.”

It is true that Prototype’s programming defies categorization. There is classical composition blending with indie rock, punk and electro to confront the issue of sex trafficking (“Angel’s Bone”); pop-rock performed on classical instruments with dancers set against the Vietnam War (“The Good Swimmer”), and a piece by the exciting indie-classical ensemble Newspeak telling a story about working-class America (“Dog Days”).

Choices, choices

A scene from 'pomme is french for apple' at Public Theater. Photo credit: Jason Hudson.

A scene from ‘pomme is french for apple’ at Public Theater. Photo credit: Jason Hudson.

With that kind of boundary-pushing work, programming the festivals can indeed be a challenge, especially in such a high-stakes environment. Wang called it “an improvisational, chaotic, responsive process” while Gantner emphasized the importance of finding “robust” works capable of withstanding the pressures and challenges of performing in the festivals.

“Very usually, we see maybe one or two major pieces — we call them the temples — that we build a festival around, sometimes logistically but not thematically, just in terms of the style or what it’s trying to address,” Wang said. “We let the festival sort of reveal itself.”

Under the Radar’s line-up in 2016 includes several returning artists: NYC locals 600 Highwaymen (whose UTR entry, “Employee of the Year”, already premiered at FIAF’s Crossing the Line festival in 2014), Chile’s Guillermo Calderón and one very big name in international theater, Toshiki Okada, from Japan. Wang and Russell defended these high-profile choices in a festival that claims to fly under the radar, so to speak, of what’s already known in theater circles. According to Wang, the decisions she and Russell make are “about maintaining relationships. It’s not about ‘here is the newest thing’ and then sweeping them to the side. As the festival matures, as the artists mature, I think there is a line of communication and dialogue that needs to be happening between the festival and the artists we’ve worked with.”

Gantner revealed a similar approach: “We don’t start with a frame and then go get [the work]. Really, it’s about people; we’re finding who we want to work with and who we think is interesting and why they’re interesting.”

This year, COIL gives a push to international artists, with three works from Australia (two by Ranters Theater plus “visual haikus” from Helen Hebertson and Ben Cobham) as well as a joint project with the China Shanghai International Arts Festival, by Xi Ban & Pi Huang Club, and a piece by French performer and ventriloquist, Jonathan Capdevielle (co-presented with American Realness).  New York artists featured include Kaneza Schaal (of Elevator Repair Service and The Wooster Group), The TEAM’S Rachel Chavkin, choreographer David Neumann (working with playwright Sibyl Kempson) and Annie Dorsen, who is leading the field in creating theater from computer-generated texts.

Not everything can work in the festival, though, Gantner cautioned. After making decisions about artists, he explained, “Then it’s more about can the show tolerate being in the festival. It can’t be something that requires four hours of quiet contemplation because everybody’s frenetic.”

A festival survival guide

Jonathan Capdeveille's Adishatz, showing as part of COIL. Photo: Alain Monot.

Jonathan Capdeveille’s Adishatz, showing as part of COIL and American Realness. Photo: Alain Monot.

How frenetic? Gantner admitted to putting in 18 hour days during COIL’s run, and said it is not unusual for him to schedule meetings in the wee hours of the morning. He called the sheer number of presenters in town during the festivals “slightly terrifying” and said getting them to see shows is “a bit like herding cats”: news of a hot show can spread like wildfire, with thousands of presenters trying to optimize their time here. What do you do when presenters who are scheduled to attend a performance don’t show up? Grab the programs for the other festivals, Gantner said; a quick look at comparable show times elsewhere will provide a good hint where everyone has gone to.

For presenters, however, the January conferences and festivals are a crucial moment in their calendars. Philip Bither is the Walker Art Center’s Senior Performing Arts Curator and he regularly makes the trip from Minneapolis in January, even though the Walker’s Out There festival of performing arts takes place at roughly the same time. He told me by phone that, in order to make the most of the “overwhelming” number of shows to see and people to meet, he hits the ground running, arriving in New York on the red-eye from Minneapolis and attending performances and meetings for five days straight, until 2 AM. However, he was clear that, if he makes a point to be in New York, it’s not to “shop” shows; rather, he said, his visit “is more exploratory.”

“What I find I use the time for is to see artists I’ve been hearing about and start a mental relationship with artists I haven’t been able to see except online,” he explained, adding that it is also a time to talk “nuts and bolts” with other “likeminded” colleagues about how to organize a tour of work that interests them all and at a price everyone can afford. Attending the festivals and conferences “can be an incredibly efficient use of time” he said, though the question always remains: “How much can you absorb well and how can you use your time best?”

Trends and talk
Talking to curators and presenters involved in such an extraordinary convergence of talent, I had another question that had less to do with the festivals and more about the work that these decision-makers are seeing. Surprisingly, or not, to my question – “What is trending in contemporary theater?” – their answers were strikingly similar. Bither pointed to work that “deeply blurs lines” particularly into “social practice” while Whitener agreed that she is seeing more and more “artists [who] are taking on the role of being the voice of social conscience in our culture – taking historical moments and reinterpreting them, and grappling with every societal issue with tremendous bravery.”

Gantner noted the same currents, but was more circumspect as to the reasons:

“Frankly, it feels to me like we’re in a bit of a crisis as theater artists and curators, and I feel like we don’t really have it anymore,” he said. “We‘re not in the middle of the conversation about what is important, I think because we haven’t been talking about ideas; we’ve been talking about theater. There’s a place for that, but we need to actually start talking about other things because otherwise we’re just talking to each other. And it’s become an echo chamber.”

He summed up the challenge in contemporary theater as one of finding “intimacy” with audiences: “How do we create experience that’s significant without dictating meaning?”

But that’s no reason not to come out to see what’s on offer in the festivals, as Gantner was the first to emphasize:

“January in New York is turning into this really extraordinary festival overall where, as a layman, it’s the most exciting time to be in the city if you’re interested in going to shows,” he said. “The excitement of that is really remarkable, and it’s become a kind of behemoth that exists independently of the conferences, which were the original reason for why we all decided to do this. I almost feel like we’ve kind of outgrown them.”

Check out the festivals and you might agree. Follow Exeunt’s ongoing coverage in our New York City section.

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Molly Grogan

Molly is a New York Co-Editor for Exeunt.

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