Why Do Theater? Every Year, International Festival Looks For Answers

Jan 10, 2016
Originally published on January 19, 2016 3:48 pm

Every January, as temperatures plummet, New York's Public Theater opens its doors to Under the Radar, a festival that features cutting-edge theater from around the world. Occasionally, these shows have moved onto the radar — like Gatz, an eight-hour adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which eventually had several runs at theaters across the country.

Meiyin Wang and Mark Russell, co-artistic directors of Under the Radar, crisscross the globe every year trying to answer a single question. "In this day," Russell says, "when there's all sorts of great ways of telling stories and everyone's got a camera ... we're looking at: Why do theater now?"

Over 12 days, Russell and Wang present their answer to that question. It's kind of like a film festival, where audiences can see three, four or five shows in a single day.

"I am trying to demystify this downtown-y thing," Russell says. "This is for everybody. All of these stories have an integrity of purpose; everyone should be able to approach them without having to know anything about the history of avant-garde art."

This year, Under the Radar is presenting work from Chile, Japan, France, Canada, Rwanda — and Brooklyn, N.Y. In a rehearsal studio in the borough's Park Slope neighborhood, a company called 600 HIGHWAYMEN is rehearsing its new show, Employee of the Year. The cast consists of five young girls, but the tale they're telling is far beyond their years. Co-artistic director Abigail Browde says it's the life story of one woman. "It's like a contemporary journey myth," she says. "So it starts when she's 3 years old, and it ends in her 80s."

Browde says the disconnect between the adult content and who's delivering it is what makes the show work. "The performance is most effective when ... you get snapped back to reality and it's like, 'Oh wait, I forgot she was 10,' " Browde says. "So there's actually a friction and a collision between where the story goes and who the messenger is."

The messenger in another Under the Radar work is also a pre-teen, but she's portrayed by 30-something Dorothée Munyaneza. Samedi Détente is about Munyaneza's 12-year-old self trying to survive the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In a phone conversation from her home in France, Munyaneza says she started to work on the piece two years ago.

"Somehow, symbolically, it meant a lot to me to address my memory, my history, 20 years afterwards," she says. "And I chose to write and to create this choreographic, musical, historical storytelling piece."

Munyaneza begins the production in a blue dress that's inspired by her school uniform. She's crouched on top of a table, singing a song to the accompaniment of a man sharpening his machete. "This object, which was normally used as a tool for cutting wood or killing animals for food, suddenly became this tool for killing," Munyaneza says, "and killing massively and killing people cruelly."

The song was written by Munyaneza and it's based on a story her cousin told her about her aunt dying in a refugee camp. Munyaneza says she hopes to find some kind of peace through the work.

"I'm trying to share this story," she says. "I'm trying to leave something in the minds and hearts of people who will carry it. And it's something I can only do through art."

And that's just what Under the Radar's artistic directors want: to present work that is urgent and relevant, and stories told in a surprising, accessible way.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New York's Public Theater opened its doors this month to Under the Radar. It's a festival that features cutting edge theater from around the world. Occasionally, these shows have moved onto the radar, like the musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," which eventually moved to Broadway. Jeff Lunden has this story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Every year, Meiyin Wang and Mark Russell, co-artistic directors of Under the Radar, crisscross the globe trying to answer a single question.

MARK RUSSELL: In this day when there's all sorts of great ways of telling stories and everyone's got a camera, everyone's telling stories and there's so many other cheaper ways to do it, we're looking at why do theater now.

LUNDEN: For 12 days, Russell and Wang present the answer to this question in something kind of like a film festival, where audiences can see three, four or five shows in a single day.

RUSSELL: I'm trying to demystify this downtown thing. This is for everybody. All these stories have an integrity of purpose. Everybody should be able to approach them without having to know anything about the history of avant-garde art.

LUNDEN: This year, Under the Radar is presenting work from Chile, Japan, France, Canada, Rwanda and Brooklyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: People with lots of suitcases, like it's everything they've got. And this is my...

MICHAEL SILVERSTONE: Good, good, good. (Unintelligible) Go back to the top.

LUNDEN: In a rehearsal studio in Park Slope, Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, artistic directors of a company called 600 Highwaymen, are rehearsing their new show, "Employee Of The Year."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: I'm running. And the streets are dark. I'm grabbing a bike from a lawn - a child's bike, too small for me.

LUNDEN: The cast members are five young girls. But the tale they're telling is far beyond their years. It's the life story of a single woman, says Abigail Browde.

ABIGAIL BROWDE: It's like a contemporary journey myth. So it starts when she's 3 years old, and it ends in her 80s.

LUNDEN: And Browde says the disconnect between the adult content and who's delivering it is what makes the show work.

BROWDE: It's like you get snapped back to reality. And it's like, oh, wait, I forgot. She was 10. So there's actually a friction and a collision between where the story goes and who the messenger is.

LUNDEN: The messenger in another work is also a preteen. But she's portrayed by 30-something Dorothee Munyaneza. "Samedi Detente" is about her 12-year-old self trying to survive the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In a phone conversation from her home in France, Munyaneza says she started to work on the piece two years ago.

DOROTHEE MUNYANEZA: Somehow, symbolically it meant a lot to me to address my memory, my history, 20 years afterwards. And I chose to write and to create this choreographic musical, historical storytelling piece.

DEIRDRE ENRIGHT: She begins the piece in a blue dress inspired by her school uniform, crouched on top of a table, singing a song to the accompaniment of a man who is sharpening his machete.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNYANEZA: (As herself, singing in foreign language).

This object, which was normally used as a tool for cutting wood, suddenly became this tool for killing and killing massively and killing people cruelly.

LUNDEN: The song was written by Munyaneza based on a story her cousin told her about her aunt dying in a refugee camp. Munyaneza says through the work, she's trying to find some kind of peace.

MUNYANEZA: I'm trying to share this story. I'm trying to leave something in the minds and hearts of people who will carry it. And it's something I can only do through art.

LUNDEN: And that's just what Under the Radar's artistic directors want, to present work that is urgent and relevant, stories told in a surprising yet accessible way. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.