In 2013, a young performer called Phoebe Waller-Bridge launched an eccentric solo show in a dank venue on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Fleabag went on to become a theatrical hit, a TV sensation and win dozens of awards. But how are future Waller-Bridges to make their mark in this pandemic-scarred landscape? With festivals cancelled, experimental venues closed and freelance artists under enormous financial pressure, what happens to the new, the unorthodox and the grassroots work that is the lifeblood of theatre?
That is a question that has been pressing upon Mark Russell of New York’s Public Theater recently. For 17 years he has run Under the Radar, the Public’s annual festival dedicated to showcasing new, exciting and innovative talent.
“These are the artists that, to use an old dusty phrase, think outside the box,” says Russell, on a Zoom call from New York. “These are the artists of the future. Eventually they work their way into the mainstream — people like Taylor Mac, Tarell Alvin McCraney or Rachel Chavkin all started on the fringe.”
Under the Radar number 17 should now be in full swing, and until November, Russell held on to the hope of staging a live event. “I had about 15 beautiful versions of festivals that did not happen,” he says. But as winter set in and New York’s theatres remained shuttered, he had to find a solution. The result is Under the Radar Online, a vibrant international digital alternative
What’s striking, says Russell, is that it has proved to be far from second best. Innovative artists bring that same experimental impulse into the virtual sphere. A festival that has always been about reinvention now finds itself grappling with what it means to be making theatre online.
“Under the Radar is always driven by this question of ‘why do theatre now?’ Everyone has a phone, everyone can make a movie,” says Russell. “So all the artists who come to Under the Radar each year make a case for their version of live theatre. This year is no different. It made them boil things down and ask, ‘What is really important for me about my work? Is it the music? Is it having people come up on stage with me?’ And each of them is trying to find ways through Zoom to make that happen.”
Among the shows on offer are Disclaimer, a virtual cookery lesson with a subtle political undertow in which writer Tara Ahmadinejad plays a woman preparing a meal for her Iranian family, with the audience standing in for her relatives. Javaad Alipoor’s Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran combines digital drama with a live Instagram feed; and 600 Highwaymen’s A Thousand Ways (Part One) connects two strangers via phone for an hour.
“One of the most amazing things is the phone call piece,” says Russell. “It’s such an intimate experience because it’s right in your ear and it’s in your imagination. When I did it, I felt like I made a friend.”
Festivals can drive artistic innovation, but they also pull into focus the concerns pressing upon society. Common to this year’s Under the Radar shows, says Russell, is a keen sense of the isolation experienced by so many during this pandemic and an instinct to try and tackle that by building audience participation into the show.
“[Putting the festival together] I was focusing on presence,” he says. “That’s what we are really hungry for. All these artists are trying to create that.”
Ross Drury, artistic director of the digital multi-arts festival Living Record Festival, also sees a growing impulse in artists to make digital work that allows audiences to participate. His programme includes an interactive radio play — audiences fill in a questionnaire and are sent audio which matches up with their choices — and The Noisy Isle, a do-it-at-home drama experience for children, involving activity kits: “Digital art is all about giving audiences autonomy to shape their own narrative,” he says.
Unlike Under the Radar, the Living Record Festival is a brand-new initiative. A UK-based online festival platform, it is designed specifically to respond to the current moment and the upsurge in digital work. Here too the emphasis is on the new, the experimental and the grassroots. Drury wanted to create a central hub, particularly for breakthrough artists whose work can get swamped in the current clamour of online offerings. He expected interest from around half a dozen companies — in fact, the festival is showcasing 44.
“Some were already working in digital,” says Drury. “Others we have helped equip to move into the digital sphere.”
The festival is supported by a mix of private investment and Arts Council funding. The finished programme offers an intriguing and eclectic mix delivered in a range of forms, both audio and video. There is comedy, poetry, family shows, cookery, drama. Ram of God is a wildly eccentric comic piece about a cult while Thrown is a binaurally delivered meditation on consciousness. Drury hopes to provide a festival experience for audiences who can pick and mix, wander from one show to another and hang out in a virtual bar.
“From the outset there was this objective of creating a kind of gallery, a browser experience for the audience,” he says. “And, for the artists, there is the power of all being together as a collective. We’re all more likely to succeed if we’re on the platform together.”
But after a year of Zoom meetings, might audiences now be suffering screen fatigue? Drury suggests that the most imaginative work takes that on board and seeks to offer something fresh and immediate. He adds that in the future digital art could work in tandem with live performance — rather than instead of it.
“With a live play there could be a digital piece that worked as a wraparound,” he says. “Like an extension pack in a video game. I think digital art is going to become a new movement and part of the ecosystem of the theatrical landscape.”
In New York, Russell agrees that one positive could be that new ways of working begin to expand the mainstream, broaden access and address climate change.
“I don’t think we’re going to come out of this pandemic with the same rules,” he says. “During the Aids crisis we launched a thing called Day Without Art: we were trying to imagine what if there was no art in America. Now we’ve had a whole year without art. People are realising how much art is part of their community and their lives.
“I think, after everyone has had to be so inventive about how they keep themselves alive and connect with their audiences, that that is going to remain. I think that I will be doing a virtual festival alongside a live festival when we come back.”
But he cautions that the very artists who might help us move forward from this period are those who are also now most at risk financially: “We’re going to lose a generation if we aren’t careful. It’s a very delicate ecology. If we don’t support these people living outside the box, then it’ll show up in the next 10 years.”
Under the Radar runs to January 17, publictheater.org. The Living Record Festival runs January 17-February 22, livingrecord.co.uk