RADAR L.A.: Experimental Mardi Gras

Mark Murphy, Diane Rodriguez, Olga Garay and Mark Russell (L-R). Photo by Julie Potter.

Remixing New York’s Under the Radar Festival for the West Coast, the RADAR L.A. Festival reflects a shift in contemporary theater, colliding international work with the Los Angeles theater scene. Under the leadership of Mark Murphy of Redcat, Diane Rodriguez of Center Theatre Group and Mark Russell of Under the Radar and New York’s Public Theater, the festival has a structure that allows open-minded audiences to dive into a variety of hybrid work.

“The deal is somehow to give them [the audience] the trigger, the notice that this is a festival,” said Russell during an interview at Redcat four days into Radar LA. “You can go outside, its sort of like Mardi Gras, you can throw away the rules for a couple of days, you can take this time and just binge on experimental theater and then go back to seeing the opera after that, but if you do these few days you’ll know a lot and probably be surprised.”

In their re-imagined version of the New York festival, the directors kept tickets modestly priced ($20), and created a social atmosphere with buzzing hubs like the Redcat Lounge and the Los Angeles Theatre Center lobby for digesting experiences with peers and having informal conversations with the artists. “One of the things we try to do,” Murphy said, “is encourage the audience to see themselves as a partner in the creative process rather than just a consumer who bought a ticket.”

Partners indeed. In Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun charges the audience with answering a question about one’s most impacting teacher bringing a personal reflection to the performance. Moving Arts’ The Car Plays: LA Stories requires the physical presence of the audience partnering in the close quarters of a motor vehicle for an intimate exchange with the artists.

Rude Mechs "The Method Gun" Photo: Alan Simmons

Highlighting the developments in contemporary theater at the heart of the RADAR L.A. Festival, Murphy identified that the work is often developed in a nontraditional way by a group of collaborators or artists working outside any institutional form. In many cases the work possesses a highly visual container in which the text is one of many elements expressed. Said Murphy, “Where there is text, it goes beyond standard play writing structures and forms to become true poetry and to really go outside norm.”

These trends are apparent in most of RADAR L.A.’s programming. The Rude Mechs is a prime example of a collaborative theater company with six co-directors and close to 30 ensemble members developing new work, including The Method Gun out of Austin, Texas. Immersive film visuals drive Fleur Elise Noble’s 2 Dimensional Life of Her projected onto a tactile paper installation. Emphasis on movement emerges in Chelfisch’s Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner and the Farewell Speech and Poor Dog Group’s Brewsie and Willie with fully embodied physicality and choreography merged with text. Additionally, the collaged monologues and use of nonlinear narrative in Teatro En El Blanco’s Neva and Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun also reveal distinct contemporary voices. Radar LA’s performances are delivered in single powerful shots without intermissions that ranging from 40-90 minutes total, and the result of these hybrid forms are layered, kinetically engaging works with multiple entry points and possible interpretations.

The term devised theater challenged more than a few theater professionals this week at RADAR L.A.  Devised theater, the collaborative and ensemble-based work abundant in this festival, is not new but gaining traction with initiatives in the performing arts field increasingly supporting the distinct creative process. Devised theater, according to Rodriguez,  is actually a term that began in the late 50s in response to the traditional theater that was being created then.

“It had an explosion in the 60s in response to what was thought of as patriarchal theater — theater that was the singular vision of a playwright. Because of the social upheaval of the 60s this really came into play and there were many theaters that said ‘we are going to be of multiple voices,’ creating collective work in a rehearsal room together.”

Shawn Sides, director of the Rude Mechs The Method Gun, agrees.  “It’s what we always understood playwrights were doing before rehearsal started,” she said during the festival’s symposium. “Devising just means that everybody’s doing it in a room together.”

Murphy places devised theater in a broader spectrum of creative practice. “I think of the term ‘devised theater’ as one of several terms to define what I often refer to as generative theater or generative performance, meaning generated by a person or group of people essentially from scratch. It’s an original idea, as opposed to an existing play that is taken from the shelf, dusted off, a director is hired, a designer is hired, a cast is hired, one day they all meet and three weeks later you have a well-made play.”

So how is RADAR L.A. impacting the future of contemporary theater? Rodriguez’s presentation during the festival’s symposium at the Los Angeles Theatre Center emphasized the specific infrastructure needed to support the new forms that, at times, combine dance, media, spoken word, and visual art.

“We are witnessing an aesthetic shift as well as a philosophical one,” Rodriguez said in her presentation,  “in that regional theaters are reevaluating the long held tradition that commissioning and producing the work of playwrights is the only road to new work and that producing work is preferred to presenting. Whereas in the past there was a resistance to presenting work, there now seems to be an exploration of how to support artists that do not write plays in the traditional way.”

In addition to championing the creation of new work, Olga Garay, Executive Director for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, expressed the potential for the festival to generate interest in touring the pieces and seeing the work ripple out into other communities.  Garay joined forces with Mark Russell to drive New York’s first Under the Radar Festival in 2005.

“The impetus for Under the Radar,” Garay said, “was to bring theater professionals and performing arts presenters under one rubric to encourage them to get more ensemble-based theater produced at regional theaters and for presenters to have more commissioning and touring.” According to Garay, the original reason to have Under the Radar was to show professionals from both sectors fully produced, full-length devised work. As many performing arts showcases for decision-makers include only excerpts, the full-length performances in Under the Radar give a more complete sense of this type of contemporary work so people become clear about the content and can apply for funding.

Chelfitsch "Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech" Photo: Toru Yokota

While the Under the Radar tracks new theater nationally and from around the world, Garay acknowledges that the New York festival tends toward the  Eurocentric, with work this year coming from North and South America, Europe and Africa. “It [Under the Radar] formed a certain place in the cultural landscape of New York City and actually globally as a way in to see American work for international presenters and producers.” said Mark Russell. Radar LA selected half its work from Los Angeles, and the other half from the western United States and the Pacific Rim – Japan, South America and Australia.

That said, attendees in the after hours gathering spots seem to be discussing the works themselves regardless of their geographic orgins. Since Under the Radar became an annual staple held in conjunction with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) in New York each January, it regularly gleans bookings by attending presenters and producers. Although attendees of RADAR L.A.’s gathering, held simultaneously with the Theater Communications Group annual conference, differ from January’s Under the Radar crowd, Murphy said several invitations have been extended to festival artists for future engagements. As these commitments take time, the festival directors will be tracking with each artist the fruits of their participation.

On another level, the vision of Murphy, Rodriguez and Russell pushes into the collective mindshare new ways of how theater can look, feel and engage. While the overall impact of RADAR L.A. will take time to assess once attendees have returned to their communities, this binge on experimental theater not only has decision-makers discussing new work, but also envisioning ways to enable the evolution of contemporary theater.

And who doesn’t like Mardi Gras?


Julie Potter

San Francisco-based arts journalist Julie Potter is crazy about seeing, doing and digesting performance. Writing is her anchor.

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  1. […] Originally published June 19, 2011 on Engine28.com. […]