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Blessings and Provocations from the 2024 Under the Radar Symposium

“I love how every year we get together and try to figure out how to save the theatre.”

If anyone was going to save the theatre, maybe it would be the crowd assembled to hear Taylor Mac utter these words. On 12 January 2024, the auditorium of the Skirball Theater at New York University (NYU) was full of theatre professionals—arts presenters, producers, service organizations, funders, and artists—from around the world who had come to town for the Under the Radar festival and now convened for the Under the Radar Symposium. On stage, Taylor Mac gave a blessing that marked the end of the morning’s Keynote Event.

“Obviously we haven’t done it yet. Maybe today,” judy continued, referring to the afternoon session that would follow shortly. The plan was for everyone to go upstairs to the Kimmel Center’s Rosenthal Pavilion and spend several hours in discussions that would surface the issues plaguing the international performing arts sector, as well as the emergent paths that could strengthen it. Yes, we were here to save theatre! But first, downstairs, Taylor Mac’s sing-song reminder: “Probably we won’t.”

The audience laughed in response, accepting the release from their responsibility to provide salvation today. That’s a kind of blessing, isn’t it? “Maybe today” paired with “Probably we won’t.” A blessing in the form of ambivalence: permission to strive for better made possible by the absence of immediate consequences. At the end of the blessing, Taylor Mac had all the lights in the theatre shut off and made us sit together in darkness. Let us be blessed by the unknown.

We might find salvation in presenting, preserving, and celebrating our peers’ work instead.

A couple hours earlier, Sunny Jain’s Love Force had processed through the lobby of the Kimmel Center and into the theatre. Attendees followed amid horns and drums and energy, setting down coffees and coats to clap along. By the time Mark Russell—founder and festival director of the Under the Radar festival—took the stage to welcome everyone, the room thrummed.

This gathering marked the nineteenth edition of the festival, which was housed within the Public Theater for all but one of its previous iterations. In that home, it had blossomed into a globally renowned festival of new work on the cutting edge. When the Public stopped producing the festival this year, citing tight finances, it was eulogized by many on Twitter (now X) and “a memorial of flowers and notes appeared on the steps of the Public.” Its loss felt like another blow to an already ailing theatrical ecosystem.

So Russell’s greeting to those assembled for the Under the Radar Symposium was triumphant. “When they told me Under the Radar was no more,” he began, “I had another idea.” Russell collaborated with producers ArKtype (Thomas O. Kriegsmann, president; Sami Pyne, producing director) to resurrect the festival, and they partnered with the International Producing Commons (IPC), Creative and Independent Producer Alliance (CIPA), and HowlRound Theatre Commons to put on the Symposium. The significance of Under the Radar’s reemergence as a city-wide independent festival was compounded by its commitment to the future of festival making. In the crowd at the Symposium’s Keynote Event were participants in the Atelier for Young Festival Managers, eighty festival makers from forty countries who gathered to reflect on the place festivals hold in society. Introducing the Atelier, Inge Ceustermans framed it as a “radical space for hope today.”

A large room full of people sitting at tables.

Mark Russell and Kevin Becerra speak to attendees gathered for the Under the Radar Symposium. Photo by Maria Baranova.

A radical hope certainly threaded through the keynote speeches that followed, holding its own in the presence of acute pragmatism. Host Edgar Miramontes kicked of the event by acknowledging that the theatre field must change and offering that these keynotes should function as “provocations for activation.” Hana Sharif, artistic director of the Arena Stage, took up that charge by speaking of herself as a member of a generation of leaders at the helm in a moment of disillusionment, forced to acknowledge that the illusive “sustainable business model” theatres have tried to return to was mythic at best. “So what,” she asked, “is left on the other side of delusion?” Looking into a crowd of global theatre leaders facing similar questions, Sharif charged them with action: “if you have the privilege of rebuilding, then you have the responsibility to build better.”

The next speaker, Ravi Jain, was clearly building better as artistic director of Why Not Theatre, where he puts innovative producing models into action. Jain discussed cultivating “hybrid” audiences—meaning audiences from multiple distinct cultures—for Why Not’s productions of Prince Hamlet and Mahabarata and named the challenge of connecting with similarly hybrid audiences when touring internationally. He recalled Norman Armour talking about touring as a relationship between Guests and Hosts and, building upon that concept, suggested that presenters and artists could function as “Guest Hosts” welcoming audiences into the theatre together.

Festival models rely on abundance, but often abundance relies on undercompensation.

The final two keynote speakers both uplifted the idea of community co-investment as an effective model to move theatre forward. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris, who submitted a keynote by video while quarantining due to illness, worried that the corporations and organizations that sell the idea of “connection” have actually sold that connection out. He said it was frightening “to know that we are living in a time when institutions that were built with true social immediacy and understanding of community are turning their back on their community in a last grasp to save themselves,” a line that followed perhaps the most pointed critique of the Public Theater’s choice to drop Under the Radar. (A close runner-up was Taylor Mac, who offered a gratitude list that included both “passively-aggressively thank the Public Theater… and sincerely too” and “grateful for the regret after taking a shit.”) Harris suggested that we might find salvation in presenting, preserving, and celebrating our peers’ work instead.

Kaneza Schaal’s keynote provided an example of this collectivity. She began with an anecdote about visiting family outside of Kigali, Rwanda and witnessing her aunt’s neighbors coming over and gathering around a metal box of money that they had all invested in each other’s small business ventures. From this story of pooled resources, Schaal came to the realization that “home has never been brick and mortar. Home has always been the set of practices between us.” Her provocation was about togetherness. Yes, infrastructure and resources are indispensable, but without relationships what good is a building or a dollar?

Mac’s blessing concluded the keynotes, and Sunny Jain’s Love Force played us out as we moved up to the Rosenthal Pavilion for the Discussion Forum. It took the 250 attendees some time to settle into their assigned seats at the twenty-five tables, but it was human time: hugging, mingling, chit-chatting at the coffee and water station. Three generations of leadership for On the Boards joyfully reunited at one table. At the front of the room, Kevin Becerra encouraged everyone to “follow the invitation of the empty seat” so we could begin. For this event, symposium dramaturg Melanie Joseph had created three sets of questions framed as provocations—that word again, that invitation to act. These were split chronologically into sections on where the industry is now, where it’s going, and the imagined futures.

Attendees write answers to questions.

Under the Radar Symposium attendees take notes on their Discussion Forum conversations. Photo by Maria Baranova.

I was in the room to document the event and report about it here in the HowlRound Journal. I floated from table to table as each set of provocations circulated, catching bits of conversations. (One of my favorites: an attendee at one table began the session by producing two small bottles from her purse and saying, “in the spirit of collectivity, I’m offering moisturizer and hand sanitizer.”) Over the next few hours, and across twenty-five simultaneous conversations, groups took on the provocations of the day with care. Attendees returned frequently to the relationship between theatre and governments, boards, and funders; to the distinctions between local, national, and global perspectives in theatremaking; and to their budgets. As was the case in the morning, the idea that theatre practitioners are operating within broken, oppressive systems was taken as a given. So we might see the topics that were discussed most fervently and frequently as bellwethers of action for the field.

These groups did not ruminate on lofty ideas or vague dreams of better futures; they spoke practically about forward-thinking models of theatrical practice and production. One festival director highlighted the key tension that “festival models rely on abundance, but often abundance relies on undercompensation.” Many cited a desire to meet this challenge by slowing down and limiting the scope or scale of their producing to allow for deeper connections with communities, audiences, and artists. They were experimenting with pay-what-you-can models, providing busses for audience members, or creating budget lines for babysitters, meals, and land back commitments. One table dug into the idea of degrowth. Going too small comes with its own challenges, however, especially for those creating more experimental work that depends upon the longevity of international touring to cover expenses. I should note that these were presenter- and producer-heavy topics, and an artist at one table acknowledged how difficult it was to engage in these approaches to theatre that understood it as a business rather than an ecosystem.

In terms of content, several producers and presenters lamented the loss of productions set in Palestine and Israel, which had been pulled by government regulations or board members. I heard about the cancellation of a European production with both Palestinian and Israeli characters, a dance piece from Israel, a show about a mother in Gaza that was originally supposed to be performed in Jerusalem, and more. The presenters, producers, and artists involved in these projects felt hamstrung by funders and regulations, unable to make work that interrogated a major contemporary conflict and ongoing genocide.

If Under the Radar’s transformation this year is a testament to action, flexibility, and collective effort, perhaps we can see the Symposium as the catalyst that precipitates further action.

Theatre’s changing workforce was also a subject of keen interest, as well as some grumbling. Attendees discussed the needs and perspectives of early career theatremakers—a population that was (perhaps understandably) underrepresented in the room. One individual noted the weight that student loans and increased housing costs place on the younger generation, limiting their ability to work for free or cheap. At another table, attendees discussed the unwavering professional boundaries of recent grads and the work that is left over when they clock out; they proposed that generosity, “hype,” and agency for these early career professionals might provide productive paths forward. Jim Nicola, former artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, articulated his hope that the new generation could see him as an advisor to help them “build the house they want to live in.” A younger attendee at his table met this with the request that “elders keep telling stories” in addition to giving advice.

All of these topics intersected with discussion of the climate emergency. Ronee Penoi noted that “anything that is messing with the status quo is going to have a climate component” and provided examples of her work to create more sustainable practices as director of artistic programming for ArtsEmerson. Elsewhere, a presenter grappled with the fact that the travel that some productions need to break even fiscally is still costly in terms of CO2 emissions. These considerations dovetailed with another thread that had come up in many conversations: the purportedly international context of the event that evaporated to reveal a focus on United States theatre and, within that, on New York as a supposed center of theatremaking in the country. This came up most frequently in responses to a provocation about hypothetical national theatre festivals, which some international attendees brushed off (no need for the hypothetical—they had national festivals already) and some domestic attendees regarded warily (how could you even accomplish this without unfairly centering cities like New York?). Yet “the disaster in our midst is global,” said one attendee, and it needs to be addressed as such.

Groups of people sitting around tables have discussions.

Artists, presenters, and producers in conversation at the Under the Radar Symposium. Photo by Maria Baranova.

If Under the Radar’s transformation this year is a testament to action, flexibility, and collective effort, perhaps we can see the Symposium as the catalyst that precipitates further action. Taylor Mac was right: a few hundred people could not save theatre on a cold Friday in January. Yet Hana Sharif was right, too, when she said that the room was “a seedling blueprint for the future waiting to write itself into existence.” The provocations offered at the Under the Radar Symposium felt, to me, like nourishment for that seedling. In the questions that remained, perhaps there are seeds to provoke the field’s continued evolution. In that spirit, I offer some of the questions I caught in the room that day:

What questions are we asking each other?
Could slowing down allow us to take more risks? 
What voices do I think should be heard, and what can I do? 
Who actually has power and is doing the most harm?  
Were they paid well? Were they financed well? 
Was it board members pulling funding? (answer: yes)
Are we going backward? 
Can you help?
How did you do it? 
How is that funded? 
Who conceptualized this? 
Are you tired? 
How do we clock out at 5:00 and still have a sustainable model?
We all like a warm shower, no? 
How do we create a road map?
How can you make travel worthwhile?
What does “national” mean in this case?
What is important to recent grads? 
What is traditional media anymore? 
What is the model that would work here? 
How does that show up in my budget? 
Are you concerned that you’ll lose funding because you said something? 
Who will create the program? 
Do we need a ministry of culture? (answer: again, yes)
Who’s doing it now?
Is that the future? 


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Thoughts from the curator

This series combines content from and about the 2024 Under the Radar Symposium, produced by the Under the Radar Festival and ArkType in partnership with the International Producing Commons (IPC), Creative and Independent Producer Alliance (CIPA), and HowlRound Theatre Commons. 

Under the Radar Symposium 2024


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