The staff of the Under the Radar Festival agreed to a way forward on Wednesday.
They would limit how many performances there are at the festival. They would not provide food or drink. The Public Theater hosts this annual celebration of experimental performances. It has already required that all audience members submit the results of a negative rapid antigen test (PCR) and confirm their full vaccination status.
Everyone agreed that these measures would keep artists, staff and audiences safe during the current coronavirus outbreak. The festival could open as planned on January 12.
But Mark Russell, Under the Radar’s artistic director, woke up on Thursday morning and realized he and his colleagues were wrong.
“I was sort of in denial, riding down the river of denial for a while,” he said on a video call Friday afternoon. “We tried all the adjustments until the last minute, and put a lot of work into rejiggering again, and then rejiggering again.”
Jiggering could only go so far with increasing case numbers. When he spoke on Friday, the Public had just announced the festival’s cancellation, citing “multiple disruptions related to the rapid community spread of the Omicron variant.” This was just after the Exponential Festival, a multi-venue, multi-arts program based in Brooklyn, had made the decision to go entirely online. On Monday, Prototype, an avant-garde festival of musical theater and opera, celebrated its 10th anniversary. Celebration that was supposed to open Jan. 7. (One Prototype show, “The Hang,” will still open, a bit later in the month than scheduled.)
Developed to complement the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals conference, these three January festivals have grown to fill an essential niche, introducing presenters and civilians to innovative theater and performance — local, national and international. The conference would be going digital as it was announced Dec. 23, making the cancellations somewhat less surprising, but not less tragic.
Kristin Marting and Beth Morrison, two of the founding directors of Prototype, spent Friday morning telling artists that, while the festival would pay out their contracts, they wouldn’t be able to perform.
“It’s been a terrible day,” Morrison said on a conference call that afternoon. “Tears and, of course, understanding. But incredible disappointment.”
These cancellations are a reminder of the difficulties involved in staging live performances in New York City during a pandemic. This is despite the best safety and health practices. On Monday the Joyce Theater said it would not be able to go ahead with Ayodele Casel’s tap-dance work “Chasing Magic,” which had been scheduled to open on Tuesday. Broadway is reeling from closures — most recently, Manhattan Theatre Club halted “Skeleton Crew” through Jan. 9 — and the unconventional, small-scale work championed by the trio of January festivals has been even slower to resume in the city.
This bounty will not return to the public for another year. And the individuals and ensembles who create experimental work — and are often dependent on the income from touring it — will have to wait that much longer for showcases.
When asked about the decision to cancel their live performances, the directors of all three events cited risks to performers and audience members, as well as visa problems or delays and supply chain delays. Theresa Buchheister, the artistic director of the Exponential Festival, cited the cost — in both time and money — of testing performers every day.
Russell mentioned the high positivity rate among the Public’s staff. “I might have been in a place of telling someone they can’t go on, because we don’t have a technician to run the lights,” he said.
Ironically, all three festivals opened last year, but digitally. Prototype produced six shows, three world premieres and three new to America. Under the Radar offered seven shows and an online symposium as well access to works in progress. The Exponential Festival presented a staggering 31 events, “Corona Cam Show” and “Purell Piece” among them. But all of the artistic directors had bet on a return to live performance — a decision made this summer, after vaccines were widely available but before the Delta and Omicron surges.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have planned to do so many things in person, but we really thought that it was a choice that could happen,” Buchheister said.
Until recently, this risk seemed small compared to the potential benefits. “We’re live producers,” Morrison explained on Wednesday, when Prototype was still planning to go ahead. “We’re interested in live theater and live opera and singing in the room and bringing people together and feeling everybody’s heartbeat synced in the audience. That’s why we do what we do and why we love what we do.”
Silvana Estrada, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Mexico who had been booked to perform her “Marchita” at Prototype, described the frustrations of working digitally. “That’s something that I talk about a lot with my colleagues,” she said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Singing to a computer makes you feel so miserable. For me, having an opportunity to actually perform live again, it’s a fulfillment that I spent a long time without.”
Prototype and Under the Radar had planned entirely live slates, feeling that a hybrid model would divert too many resources — artistic and financial. Exponential Festival was the only festival to offer an online option. It offered 15 live shows and four on YouTube. Buchheister was positive for the test in December and Exponential was finally moved online. Seven live shows chose to go digital, while eight others chose to delay.
Dmitri Barcomi, the creator of “Case Studies: A New Kinsey Report,” didn’t seem too upset. “I think an even greater level of intimacy can be achieved through the added privacy of an at-home viewing,” he wrote in an email. Besides, he added, “so much of our generation discovered their queerness online, so it feels like a welcome back party!”
But the online format didn’t work for everyone. “This play is meant to be experienced in person,” Marissa Joyce Stamps, the writer and director of “Blue Fire Burns the Hottest,” which had been booked for Exponential, wrote in an email. And Under the Radar and Prototype didn’t feel that their scheduled works could or should pivot at the last minute. Both hope to return next year in a hybrid form or going all-in live.
“This is what we do,” said Marting, the Prototype director. “Because art is meaningful in people’s lives. It’s not for special occasions. It’s for the fabric of our lives.”
Source: NY Times