In a recent profile of Mark Russell in American Theatre magazine, he uses the term “industry vipers” to describe the likely audience for some performances of the show Ameriville (pictured). Created by the ensemble UNIVERSES, Ameriville, is one of twenty shows that Russell has selected to be a part of this year’s Under the Radar Festival (UTR), which he curates. In that quote he’s referring specifically to the performances that are taking place from January 7-11, which coincide with this year’s Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) convention.
It seems a bit odd that Russell would be lobbing vitriol in the direction of the industry that he is very much a part of. But even more striking is his negative attitude toward the people that he specifically created UTR to attract. Capitalizing on the presence of hundreds of presenters seeking work to book in their venues, Russell built UTR to offer them a selection of work that Russell feels deserves more attention far away from the Broadway and Off-Broadway scenes.
Russell’s savvy in creating and growing UTR over the past seven years has led to a number of other organizations trying to pull off the same trick. New York now plays host to six performance festivals that straddle the dates of the APAP conference (this year it’s from January 7-11). Besides UTR there’s the COIL festival at PS122; there’s the Other Forces Festival created by the still very young Incubator Arts Project; Abrons Arts Center hosts the American Realness festival; HERE has Culturemart and also partners with the Public on some productions that are part of UTR; and then there’s less well-known Horse Trade Theater Group’s 2010 Encores. There are also venues like Dance Theater Workshop and the Center for Performance Research, which don’t arrange formal festivals, but instead host showings all weekend.
The presentation of all this work is great, on some level. Many of the participating artists will walk away from these short runs with paying gigs, or at the very least some new business contacts they didn’t have before. Audiences willing to sort through the 1,000+ shows that are crammed into just a few days time will have the chance to see an enormous amount of work at a relatively cheap price—tickets for most performances in the festivals mentioned above range from free to $20, with a number of deals available if you see multiple shows. And perhaps the best aspect is the number of international artists who participate, and who otherwise would not or could not bring their work to New York, particularly not for such short engagements.
But as the number of fests and shows expands exponentially each year, there seem to be some major downsides to the bloat. The vast majority of work in these festivals are re-stagings, meaning they’ve had successful runs elsewhere. Last year, in fact, Russell chose to re-stage three shows that had already had successful runs in New York, which seems to indicate how much he focuses on visiting industry in his curation rather than drawing local audiences to new, exciting work. Vallejo Gantner seems to have followed a similar urge this year, by inexplicably re-staging the Spalding Gray show Stories Left To Tell, which had a very successful and celebrity-filled run back in 2007 at the Minetta Lane Theatre and subsequently traveled to a number of major venues.
Re-stagings, of course, are very practical when it comes to industry showings—it’s incredibly risky for an artist to put untested work in front of presenters. They risk putting someone off forever if the show fails to impress. However, just as BAM’s Next Wave Festival long ago stopped highlighting the avant garde, UTR and many of the accompanying festivals are steering farther away from new artists who are truly under anyone’s radar.
Another concern is that artists are spending an enormous amount of time and effort, and needless to say money, to mount these productions, with questionable artistic rewards. With so much competition for attention, it’s hard for even great shows to gain enough attention to garner needed reviews or eyeballs. Shows like Dance Marathon (part of Incubator’s Other Forces Festival), which could have and likely deserves much more attention, are in a precarious position. Choosing to mount only 3 performances during from the Friday-Saturday of APAP, and lasting a full four hours per performances, this show is a tough draw for people choosing shows with an eye toward packing in the largest number of shows. It’s also a company, bluemouth inc., that doesn’t have a strong track record in the city. If they had extended just one more weekend, they could have built a larger non-industry audience and likely gained some additional buzz around the show. Word-of-mouth simply doesn’t have time to build in three days and is even harder to build at a lesser-known venues like University Settlement.
For emerging artists, every show is a chance to build their audience. The success of any artist or group of artists relies on an audience, people willing to spend some cash to see their work; to maybe even become one of those willing to become patrons, volunteers or even participants—those who help to grow and sustain the artists’ careers. To put on a show where the artist’s audience doesn’t grow and engagement is limited because people are hustling off to see 2-4 other shows that day, puts the artist in a difficult position. That said, because many of these works are re-stagings, some of the initial start-up costs (so to speak) are not there, but I still wonder how responsible it is for these venues to push to include so many artists when the rewards are going to be smaller and smaller as APAP weekend expands further.
All of this leads to the primary concern with so many shows going on at once: there’s really not enough audience to go around at these festivals. Many shows resort to papering in order to fatten audiences (i.e. offering free tickets to friends and family, and sometimes strangers, so that the “industry vipers” and critics are not alone in the audience, and in the hope that there are people more willing to laugh and clap when appropriate). For other shows, particularly those with early or very late show times, the theaters are more than a little bit bare. One show I went to had only 20 people in the audience, despite having seats for at least 150.
Can it continue to expand? There is a practical limit on the number of venues in this city, especially after there have been so many closings in the past year or so. Should it become one massive festival? The reality is that the smaller festivals like American Realness and Other Forces are taking a more artist-led approach and have a very different curatorial slant than the bigger UTR and COIL fests, which is to everyone’s advantage. The different producers and curators ensure a greater diversity of talent. The more problematic questions are: who are these shows for and is it really possible to draw a non-industry audience to fill so many seats? There’s some great work on display, so my hope is that people would be willing to give it a try, but it’s likely frustrating for outsiders to sort through so many shows.
Among the shows that are going to keep playing for at least a little while longer, I can say this about a couple of them:
Hello Hi There by Annie Dorsen (COIL Fest) is remarkable—one of those rare shows that manages to tackles some big ideas and successfully uses the structure, medium, and content to interrogate and enrich the discussion it’s opening up about the role and ideas of public intellectuals.
Though I didn’t have a chance to see it this weekend, at least two trusted sources told me that Diciembre (UTR) has a riveting, and very well-written story about a possible war in Chile.
Reggie Watts, usually a reliable entertainer, delivered a sophomoric stoner meander through Michigan and Amsterdam with Tommy Smith in Dutch A/V (UTR). The biggest fault in the production, besides the poor choice of venue given their set, was that all Watts’ charisma was hidden behind a scrim, choppy video projections, and bathed in shabby lighting.
I would love to recommend a couple of the shows in the American Realness Festival, but unfortunately they’re already going to be gone by the time you read this, so you’ll have to wait for next year for that.
Anyhow, if you have a chance, see a couple shows this week, if you’re open to rubbing elbows with the vipers that is.