Following outcry from theatre artists, the Public Theater has provided an explanation as to why it decided to cancel its longtime Under the Radar Festival, which was dedicated to presenting experimental theatre work, work from emerging artists, and plays from international artists. In a statement provided to Playbill, Public Artistic Director Oskar Eustis explained that he was not cancelling the festival completely, saying, "We made the painful decision to place the festival on hiatus."
Since 2006, UTR has programmed 229 companies from 42 countries. And the works featured in UTR have gone on to tour around the country and internationally. It’s where artists such as Young Jean Lee, Daniel Fish, and Taylor Mac presented their most avant-garde work. The festival also programmed respected companies such as Elevator Repair Service, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Belarus Free Theatre, Waterwell, 600 Highwaymen, and Pig Iron Theater Company.
Eustis said the reason for cancelling UTR in 2024 as financial because of the economic challenges of producing theatre after the COVID-19 pandemic. The cancellation of UTR for the Public's 2023-24 season was a way to cut costs. Says Eustis: "We have not returned to pre-pandemic economics, neither in our expenses nor our revenue. Many of our programs are free or priced for accessibility, which make them particularly economically vulnerable. Because of these factors, we are assessing and implementing other cost reductions at the theatre in addition to UTR. We must act now to avoid the kind of existential pressure currently battering some of our sister theatres."
Eustis also said that the Public is still committed to working with new artists, citing its Devised Theater Working Group and its cabaret venue Joe's Pub. He then said, "We will be aggressively searching for ways to support the artists who thought of UTR as home." Eustis also left the door open for UTR to return in the future, saying, "We look forward to a time when we can fully expand back into the robust and expansive theatre we need to be."
Though Eustis has characterized the current state of UTR as being on hiatus, the festival's founder and producer Mark Russell told American Theatre, “That’s not how it was characterized to me. It’s really an end—unless someone dropped a whole lot of money on them.”
And many artists have taken the cancellation of UTR in 2024 as a sign that festival is no more, and that the Public is redirecting its focus to more mainstream fare (the institution was the pre-Broadway tryout house for Hamilton and next year it will host a new musical by Alicia Keys).
The cancellation of UTR comes at the heels of a disturbing new trend of theatrical institutions shuttering their new work creation arms. In years past in New York City, there was a variety of theatre festivals in the month of January, including Under the Radar, the Exponential Festival (for emerging artists), COIL (for experimental work), American Realness (for dance), and Prototype (for music theatre and opera). These festivals were timed to the Association of Performing Arts Professionals' annual conference in NYC, also held in January. Representatives from theatrical venues around the country would come to the city, see those shows, and program the shows at their own venues. It was a way for artists who operated outside of the mainstream to be produced and to be seen.
But in recent years, the festival offerings in NYC have started contracting. The performance venue P.S. 122 canceled the COIL Festival in 2018, and the independently produced American Realness did not return after the pandemic. It’s clear that with the recession and rising costs of raw materials and labor, it has become more difficult in recent years to produce new work that is not based on any pre-existing content, especially experimental work.
Read the complete statement from Eustis here:
Last week, difficult news was shared that the Under the Radar festival would not return for The Public’s 23-24 season. We made the painful decision to place the festival on hiatus. I understand and share the hurt that those who participated in and loved the festival have expressed over the past few days.
The Public Theater has been the proud home of Under the Radar for 18 years. Under the brilliant leadership of Mark Russell, UTR became a beloved annual part of our city’s calendar, a time when we celebrated the cutting-edge performance art of the moment. It was also a vital gathering point for adventurous artists and audiences and the only place in our season where American and international artists work side-by-side in multiple venues. My first artistic act when I became Artistic Director was to invite UTR to make The Public its home.
Unfortunately, these are exceptionally challenging times in our field. The Public, like almost every other non-profit theatre in the country, is facing serious financial pressure. We have not returned to pre-pandemic economics, neither in our expenses nor our revenue. Many of our programs are free or priced for accessibility, which make them particularly economically vulnerable. Because of these factors, we are assessing and implementing other cost reductions at the theater in addition to UTR. We must act now to avoid the kind of existential pressure currently battering some of our sister theatres.
The Public retains its strong commitment to experimental, devised, and downtown work outside of a festival context, including the Devised Theater Working Group, our incubator for experimental artists. Further, Joe’s Pub continues to be a platform for many multidisciplinary artists; and we will continue our long-standing relationships with experimental ensembles. We will be aggressively searching for ways to support the artists who thought of UTR as home.
In the certainty that better times will come, we continue to work to preserve the health and mission of The Public. We look forward to a time when we can fully expand back into the robust and expansive theatre we need to be.