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We Were Called to This Moment

Good morning.

It is a gift to be in this room today to be in communion with this motley crew of luminaries, fortune tellers, social agitators, subversive co-conspirators, cultural architects, and spiritual archivists. It’s good company for a Friday morning. The lovers, the strivers, the survivors determined to transform into thrivers. It’s good company.

Twenty years ago, just one year before Mark birthed Under the Radar Festival, I was introduced to the late great Ellen Stewart and the magic of the home she fostered for the groundbreaking, the performance artist, the avant-garde, the international spectacle, the folks in hot pursuit of freedom. La MaMa cracked something open for me… and a few years later, my first experience at the Under the Radar Festival solidified it. There were spaces that could contain the wild rage and joy, the vulnerability and fragility that transcends language and culture. The hoodoo, folk, samba, ballet, funk, acapella, stop rock your body, punk, gospel speaking to the divinity in all of us. The silent exploration of death so you could better understand the life of it all. It is a gift to be in this room today. Because this is the room they said was impossible. There are more than twenty-five partners supporting this year’s festival. This room is a testament to the power of tenacity, collective work, and reimagination: a seedling blueprint for the future waiting to write itself into existence.

Hana Sharif stands at a podium.

Hana Sharif speaking at the Under the Radar Symposium Keynote Event.

A little less than four years ago, the world turned in its head. The country went into lockdown, hundreds of thousands of souls were snuffed away by an invisible disease, and as the isolation threatened to suffocate us, dancers performed on rooftops; musicians played from open window sills; playwrights, actors, and performance artists gathered in virtual rooms to remind us of our collective humanity. The line between audience and artist all but disappeared as TikTok and Instagram became platforms for storytelling and curation. Now look—I know there are purists in the room who rebuke the notion that those platforms house high art… but what we know is that they democratized access and artistic agency, birthed radical collaborations, and undoubtedly saved lives while redefining our world. So perhaps there are lessons there.

Part of the unprocessed trauma of the last four years has been the desperate chokehold fear and scarcity have had on our industry’s structural imagination. We’ve born witness to the unprecedented loss of new work incubators like Sundance, Humana, and the Lark. We watched the final fracturing of a fiscal system that had been failing for thirty years. We experienced the most seismic generational leadership shift since the birth of the American theatre, just in time to witness the global shutdown of institutions. And then watched theatres crawl their way back, opening doors but leaving thousands of our friends and colleagues on the outside of walls they helped build. I am one of those leaders forced to peel away the remaining vestiges of the illusion that there was a sustainable business model waiting to re-emerge.

And what is left on the other side of the delusion? What we know is that disappointment cannot give way to defeat. Toni Morrison said,

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art… This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.

I will tell you today my friends: we cannot be unmoored by rebirth; reimagining; remembering—the root of our work; the search for truth that births the space to hold wild rage and joy, the vulnerability and fragility that transcends language and culture. The capacity for the truth that refines our character, exalts our compassion, ignites our ingenuity, and breathes into the spaces of our bodies that have been devoid of oxygen. The alternative is atrophy.

What if everything that fractured was in service of building a more equitable system fueled by democratized access, artistic agency, radical collaborations, and folks in hot pursuit of freedom?

I often say to my class of artistic leaders that we were called to this moment in the artistic continuum. The universe has proclaimed we are the right people for the job of reclamation. Pushing past the doomsday rhetoric of imminent implosion… What if everything that fractured was in service of building a more equitable system fueled by democratized access, artistic agency, radical collaborations, and folks in hot pursuit of freedom?

If you have the privilege of rebuilding, then you have the responsibility to build it better. Abundance rejects the mythology of singular success and instead, embraces communal harvesting. It clears the table of perceived truisms and encourages deep investigation, including challenging the homogeneity of form in the mainstream opportunities making space for the unexpected and the untamed. Abundance rewards innovation, it honors our history, and prepares the ground for our future.

My three-year-old daughter came to me as I was packing for this trip, sat on my lap, took my face in her hands, and said, “Why do you work too much? Why do you do this work?” They were such sincere questions—born from her attempt to understand the thing that keeps me from tucking her into bed so many nights. But I told her I do this work because it is a spiritual calling of service. This is how Mommy helps transform our community into a better place that can more fully see you, honor you, and love you.

A woman in a black and tan dress speaks to collaborators at a table.

Hana Sharif at the Under the Radar Symposium Discussion Forum. Photo by Maria Baranova. 

In a world careening towards authoritarianism, xenophobia, and genocide, our work is essential to help elevate humanity. We have never needed these voices more. I call only a few: Aya Ogawa, Mona Mansour, Taylor Mac, Luis Alfaro, Alisha, Bamuthi, Toshi, Young Jean Lee, and more. We have never needed your voice more.

So here’s the provocation: if the universe is conspiring to deliver us to the future, what are you willing to release to meet this moment? With curiosity, fearlessness, and a belief in the power of the collective—I will meet you there.

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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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