At a Revamped Under the Radar, New York Greets a ‘Global Downtown’

At a Revamped Under the Radar, New York Greets a ‘Global Downtown’

The writer and performer Inua Ellams was born in Nigeria, is based in England and performs internationally. “As an immigrant, I’m most comfortable when I’m not at home,” he said during a recent conversation. “To go to another country and see if my concepts still stand the test of artistry, that’s what I love doing.”

Ellams will take that test in early January, at Lincoln Center’s Clark Studio Theater, when he performs “Search Party,” during which the audience curates an evening of his poetry by shouting out words that Ellams enters into the search bar of an iPad already loaded with his works.

“Search Party” is among the works included in this year’s Under the Radar Festival, a celebration of experimental performance. Having lost its longtime space at the Public Theater owing to the Public’s budget cuts, the 2024 festival will disperse 17 full productions (as well as symposia and a disco) across more than a dozen partner venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Of those full productions, about half of them are created by artists based outside the United States. In a year in which the festival, with its budget halved, had to scramble for new partners and new spaces, and considering the rising costs and difficulties of artists’ visas, a roster of local artists might have been an easier sell. But that would undercut the ethos of Under the Radar, which has always mingled international artists with local ones in pursuit of what the festival’s founder, Mark Russell, refers to as “the global downtown.”

“I want for our artists to see these other artists from around the world and understand that they’re all part of a larger community,” Russell said.

To bring an international show to New York is a process that must begin many months (or ideally, years) in advance. The work has to be scouted and deemed appropriate for an American, English-speaking audience and not so bulky — in terms of both cast size and production design — that the cost of importing it becomes prohibitive.

Within these criteria, Ellams’s “Search Party” is especially attractive. It requires only Ellams, who had already received a visa as an individual of extraordinary ability, and his iPad. (“Of all the shows that I’ve had performed across the world, this is probably the most eco-friendly,” Ellams said.) The two other shows that Lincoln Center has brought over, “Queens of Sheba” and Pan Pan’s “The First Bad Man,” are also traveling without scenery, a deliberate simplicity.

“International artists are getting smarter,” Jon Nakagawa, Lincoln Center’s director of contemporary programming, said.

Funding for these shows must be secured, typically a collaboration between the sponsor theater and the international artists, who can apply in their home countries for government and private grants, which can be used to cover airfare and hotel costs. Visas have to be obtained, typically either a P-3, for an artist or entertainer traveling with a work of unique cultural significance, or an O-1 visa, like the one Ellams travels under, granted to individuals of extraordinary abilities. Each type requires both a stateside approval and an in-person interview, typically in the applicant’s country of origin. As wait times for visa approvals have grown exponentially, many arts institutions now work with law firms to expedite the process.

Even so, there can be surprises, usually not welcome ones. The Japan Society, which has long imported experimental Japanese performance, ran into a hitch with “Hamlet/Toilet,” an absurdist, pop culture-inflected work from the playwright and director Yu Murai and Theater Company Kaimaku Pennant Race. As the work is based in part on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Yoko Shioya, the Japan Society’s artistic director, had to argue what made this work culturally unique to Japan. Asked by the consular official to submit further evidence, she focused on the production’s toilets. (Muria is also the author of “Romeo & Toilet.” Toilets are a recurring motif.)

“Everybody who first goes to Japan, their jaws drop at the toilets,” she said. The official approved the application.

Other productions have had to rely on U.S. senators and foreign officials to arrange timely appointments at American embassies. When none can be found, artists have been flown to other countries whose embassies are less backlogged. This year, the vice mayor of Milan helped to schedule an expedited appointment for a member of the Italian performance troupe Motus, which will perform “Of the Nightingale I Envy the Fate,” adapted from “The Oresteia,” at La MaMa. A cinematographer with Sister Sylvester’s “The Eagle and the Tortoise,” a work about the history of the aerial view that will play at BRIC, wasn’t so lucky. That colleague couldn’t secure an appointment until 2025 and won’t join the production.

“It’s becoming more and more risky and more and more expensive,” Denise Greber, La MaMa’s director of artistic operations, said of importing international work. She noted that the cost of visa applications has nearly doubled in recent years. And she had just received word that the cost of one form was set to increase further. “But we still try. It’s important for people in New York City to have an opportunity to see work from other countries. It’s just really important to have cultural exchange.”

It isn’t only New York City residents who benefit. Under the Radar, like other January events such as the Exponential Festival, Prototype and The Fire This Time, is in part a showcase that coincides with the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals. Those professionals can reward artists with lucrative touring contracts, and artists can profit in other ways, too.

Ellams was looking forward to the conversations among local and international artists, perpetuating his belief in what he called “the global village.”

“New York is the concrete jungle of the world,” he said. “It’s where a lot of the world’s conversations begin.”

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