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The January Theater Festivals Are Mostly Postponed — But Here’s What You Can See

Photo: Maria Baranova/Willa Ellafair Folmar/Walter Wlodarczyk

Producing a festival is like conducting a war with multiple fronts — travel visas, multiple venues, overstretched staff. Late in December, New York’s experimental theater festivals were losing every battle, on every front, to Omicron. People kept testing positive; sets couldn’t be unloaded from cartage; performers couldn’t make it into the country. So on December 31, the Public Theater announced via Twitter that Under the Radar, which had been expecting to start performances on January 12, was shutting down. The following Monday, the opera-and-music-theater festival Prototype followed suit. Brooklyn’s Exponential Festival had already decided that it would stream its programming. COVID setbacks on and Off Broadway will (everyone hopes) be straightened out in a few weeks, when the worst of this pandemic phase is past. But January is generally the window for avant-garde performance, when a usually marginalized fringe takes over the town. For those of us who use the mini-season as a battery-charging period, the outlook seems grim.

But the festivals aren’t really gone, or at least not completely. Experimental artists are still making work — a little of it in person, much of it online. Taken all together, it might still be a banquet for anyone interested in theatrical innovation, transgression, and intellectual riot.

Under the Radar, for example, isn’t entirely canceled. It has whittled itself down to a single effort: an out-of-town duet of Pascal Rambert monologues in Chatham, New York. Granted, the venue, the idyllic PS21 in the Berkshires, is a two-and-half-hour car ride from the Public, but Rambert is one of France’s most interesting playwrights and worth the trip. (The artistic director of the Exponential Festival, Theresa Buchheister, told me they’re planning on going, even though they don’t drive.) And one of the most anticipated Prototype productions is still on its feet, though it’s been pushed a little further into the month. Taylor Mac’s The Hanga drag-infused staging of the death of Socrates — opens at HERE Arts Center on January 20, and the team is optimistic that the current COVID wave will peter out by then. Mac is a Pulitzer finalist whose work has made it to the world’s largest stages. For The Hang, “it’s a 100-seat house,” says one of the festival’s directors, Kristin Marting, “which is not something you come across usually for Taylor these days. So it’s a really special opportunity.” They test everyone involved, every day.

January has also been one of the rare times when the often siloed worlds of avant-garde theater and contemporary dance mix their audiences. The dance-focused Live Artery Festival at New York Live Arts has stopped all in-person performances, but the Virtual Artery offerings — filmed performances from this past season — will continue. The lineup includes Raja Feather Kelly’s Wednesday (a sideways look at Dog Day Afternoon) and Christopher Williams’s full-length ballet Narcissus. And from January 10 through 24, Baryshnikov Arts Center is presenting the online world premiere of Molly Lieber and Eleanor Smith’s feminist work gloria rehearsal (excerpt), the center’s own commission.

Nothing slows down the juggernaut-of-weird Exponential Festival, not even Buchheister’s bout with COVID in December. They’re from Kansas, and they were trying to figure out a way to get there for the holiday even after they got their diagnosis. “Then my dad was like, ‘You’re not coming home; don’t be a lunatic,’” which, they say, was the moment it finally sank in that they’d need to shift the festival online. The Exponential team gave artists the option to cancel, postpone, livestream, or record their work, and 11 of the original 19 shows will stream for free stream for free via its YouTube page or on Twitch. (The other eight productions will appear later in the year.) The quick-draw talents involved have been adapting their pieces to fit the new limitations. In the case of an Annie Heath dance piece, Buchheister says, the filmed version is “almost more intimate than it would ever be allowed to be with an audience,” since a camera can follow the dancer onstage and into the set. (Exponential and its host theater the Brick have been deeply engaged with digital broadcast all through the pandemic; the Brick’s YouTube archive is a treasure trove.) The festival is bracketed by two of its most intriguing offerings: River Donaghey’s demonic podcast-recap play RecursiveCast starts things off on January 11, and Leonie Bell and her company Local Grandma’s We Live to Die: The Grieving Widows Club on January 31, sporting an aesthetic the German American artist describes herself as “Mr. Bean trying to do Pina Bausch.”

You can also fashion your own digital festival out of everything else available online right now. It might be the right time to see HERE Arts Center’s 9000 Paper Balloons, Maiko Kikuchi and Spencer Lott’s dreamy filmed puppetry piece about World War II, which runs through the end of the month on their website. The blessings of virtual archives mean you can also research those international artists who were supposed to come to the city: It’s frustrating that Inua Ellams will no longer be at Under the Radar, but his celebrated Three Sisters is still rentable via the National Theater at Home site. The most accomplished of the new virtual venues, Joshua William Gelb’s Theater in Quarantine, is conducting salons on digital performance on January 20 — and you should certainly spend some time with the company’s YouTube archive as well. (One of the finest shows of 2020, Heather Christian’s I Am Sending You the Sacred Face, is still available there.) Marting particularly recommends the Rattlestick Theater’s upcoming Addressless, a Zoom-style choose-your-own-adventure piece about homelessness and the branching paths of housing insecurity. Real Under the Radar–heads will remember gorgeous past visiting productions by the Argentine director Mariano Pensotti, and the Onassis Foundation has begun streaming Pensotti’s experimental film The Audience, which follows 11 members after a theatrical production, peering into the way the art has changed them.

Finally, if you are trying to get outside and away from your screen, Bandcamp has Gelsey Bell’s ravishing soundwalk Cairns, which leads you on a mad dash around Green-Wood Cemetery, or you could listen to her Meander as you drift around the sleepy, wintertime Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Kitchen, long a center for boundary-breaking work, will let us dip our toes in “nightlife” again with its new installation The New Eagle Creek Saloon, Sadie Barnett’s reconstruction and reimagining of the first Black-owned gay bar in San Francisco. I cannot responsibly recommend being in a real bar right now, but a reconstruction of a bar? Where we all keep our masks on? Sign me up.

The Audience is online at the Onassis Foundation’s YouTube page from through January 16.
gloria rehearsal (excerpt) is online at from January 10 through 24.
The Exponential Festival is online at from January 11 through 31.
Virtual Artery is online at from January 13 through 17.
Addressless is online at from January 13 through February 13.
Under the Radar’s The Art of Theater & With My Own Hands are at PS21 in Chatham, New York, from January 14 through 23.
The New Eagle Creek Saloon is at the Kitchen from January 18 through March 6.
The Hang is at HERE Arts Center from January 20 through February 20.
Theater in Quarantine’s salon is available on YouTube from January 20.

Theater Festivals Are Mostly Off—But Here’s What You Can See