Last Wednesday, the staff of the Under the Radar festival agreed on a path forward.
They would limit the number of performances in the festival. They would not offer food or drink. The Public Theater, the host of this annual celebration of experimental performance, had already mandated that audience members provide the results of a negative PCR or rapid antigen test, in addition to confirming full vaccination status.
Everyone concurred that these measures would keep audiences, artists and staff safe amid the current coronavirus surge. The festival would be able to open on Jan. 12, as planned.
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.”
With case numbers rising, jiggering only went so far. 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. And on Monday, Prototype, a festival of avant-garde opera and musical theater, largely spiked its 10th anniversary celebration that was meant to open on 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. It was announced on Dec. 23 that the conference would go digital, which made the subsequent cancellations less surprising, if no less sad.
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.”
The cancellations speak to the difficulties of producing live performance in New York during a pandemic, even assuming the most responsible health and safety 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.
Now audiences will have to wait another year, at least, before this bounty properly returns. 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 shows, the directors of all three events listed risks to performers and audiences, as well as visa problems 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, the festivals all managed to open last year, albeit digitally. Prototype programmed six shows, three of them world premieres and three new to the United States. Under the Radar offered seven shows, as well as an online symposium and 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 very recently that risk felt small, especially compared to the potential rewards. “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. Only the Exponential Festival had preset an online option, with 15 shows to be presented live and four to be made available on YouTube. But in late December, after Buchheister tested positive, the decision was made to move Exponential online entirely. Seven of the live shows chose to adopt a digital format; eight opted to postpone.
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. Instead they both hope to return next year, perhaps in hybrid form, perhaps going all-in again on 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.”