Under the Radar 2015: An interview With Co-Director Meiyin Wang

"I respond most to work that demands my attention; that makes me lean forward in my seat. That could be translated into work that has a sense of urgency."
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Meiyin Wang photo credit Eric Ting

Beginning January 7, "The most exciting 12 days in the New York theater season have arrived," said Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis. "Under the Radar has spent over 10 years bringing cutting-edge work from around the globe to the stages of The Public Theater, and this year promises to be the most surprising set of offerings we have yet seen."

Co-Director of Under The Radar, Meiyin Wang is here to tell us more about it.

Congratulations on your first year as a Co-Director of Under The Radar. Tell us about your curatorial philosophy and some of the places you have been scouting for work?

I respond most to work that demands my attention; that makes me lean forward in my seat. That could be translated into work that has a sense of urgency -- whether it is about where we are in a cultural or political moment, or about a radical aesthetic position or about the risks the performers are taking on stage. I love work that is rigorous, that provokes, that irritates, that has a sense of play and that creates its own rules for its universe. It is a more intuitive approach, but really about responding to the artists' lines of investigation. We do not program the festival with a thematic line -- we respond to the artists and the work that we see. It is only during the festival that thematic and aesthetic lines reveals itself to us.

One of the things that is most important to me is the experience of the festival community -- the audience, the artists and the staff. How do we create moments for the community to come together? How do you create the best environment for the collision of different ideas, senses and aesthetic propositions? How do we create a well-rounded program that shows a diversity of form, and cultural perspectives? How do we create the contexts for formal and informal conversations? How does this edition speak to the previous UTR festivals -- are there continuing lines of investigations, how are the returning artists changing their approach, etc.?

Some of the places that I've been recently to see work are Krakow; Vancouver; Montreal; Bogota; Santiago; Buenos Aires; Groningen, Holland; Italy; of course around the U.S. and in New York. I've have gone to some of these festivals again and again over the years, and it is a pleasure to see and learn from the evolution and/or expansion of these festivals and the artists they present.

What's it been like collaborating with Mark Russell cross-continent?

Apart from the time difference, it has been pretty smooth. Being based in Switzerland, it is easy for Mark to make his way to Berlin or Paris to see a show at a moment's notice. That also means that I am able to focus on research on artists from North and South America. We have spent many years in a very small office so it's nice to discover different ways of communicating. But we're looking forward to having him back!

Many of UTR's offerings this year come from companies outside of America. Can you talk a bit about these global theater perspectives (and possibly what new ideas and styles of theater they are bringing to the festival)?

For the 2015 festival, we are presenting international artists from Brazil, Argentina, Iran, UK, Spain and Switzerland. It might be an obvious thing to say -- but still important to point out -- that all these artists are making work that resonates universally because they are working so specifically and deeply with questions from their culture in modern times. Whether it's about the economic crisis in Spain, a portrait of a city through the lens of its artists in Buenos Aires or the end of a relationship in Tehran, these pieces give us a glimpse of how artists outside of the U.S. are engaging with the questions theatre can ask now.

Mariano Pensotti returns to UTR with Cineastas (Film-makers) which follows the lives of four filmmakers and the movies they are making in Buenos Aires. Mariano began his career in cinema -- he had directed a feature film and two shorts by the time he was 25 years old -- and you can see the influence that it has on his stage work. In Cineastas, he uses the language of cinema without using a camera: crossfades, voice over, diptychs, to tell a story of these artists' real lives and fictional lives that is simultaneously intimate and epic. Through a simple gesture, prop or sentence, the entire meaning of a scene can change in an instant. Reality keeps getting de-stabilized. One really witnesses the marvelous act of continuous, active invention on stage.

We are thrilled to present the U.S. premiere of Iranian writer/director Amir Reza Koohestani. Two actors who have been separated for years are invited to dub-over the DVD version of a play from a decade ago. They start to argue after a while, and it is unclear whether it is their own words or the text of the play they are dubbing. They still in love with each other, but unable to stay in the same room. Decoding the relationship and the fragments becomes a wonderful, intricate puzzle. It is a rare, subtle look at love and intimacy in a conservative society and the seeming impossibility of living a single independent life in Iran.

From Brazil is O Jardim by writer/director Leonardo Moreira and Companhia Hiato -- one of the most interesting companies from Brazil. O Jardim traces the story of one family in one house over three generations and time periods. The audience is divided into three seated sections and the stories unfold differently for each section. Leo draws from his actors' own family histories and fabricated fictions to create a piece with a striking mise-en-scene with a narrative that keeps accumulating, mutating and transforming. The actors give captivating performances, and walk the line between themselves and their characters beautifully.

Which shows stand out as especially unique?

Reggie Watts' Audio Abramović provides the rare opportunity to experience Reggie's off-kilter humor and genius up-close and personal. And it's free! This is a first for UTR, there are no reservations or tickets available, you have to stand in line to get to sit across a table from Reggie Watts as he performs a new original song for you.

Daniel Fish's A (Radically Condensed And Expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again is another one. Fish is a fiercely original director who creates quietly audacious situations. Through their headphones, four actors are fed audio recordings of David Foster Wallace (chosen and mixed live) and channel his words through their voice and body. When we first saw the show at the Chocolate Factory, the theater had an air of a real sporting event. The performances are athletic and electric.

Stan's Cafe is a devised theater company from the UK and has a wholly original approach to any piece they create. They were the masterminds behind the rice show in UTR '08, which recreated the statistics of the U.S. with one grain of rice representing one person. (It was five tons of rice, if you're curious). The Cardinals takes you through the entire Bible to contemporary times in 90 minutes using a puppet theater, aided by their female Muslim stage manager. The show is entirely wordless and is a virtuosic display in theatricality. It is funny, strange and quietly subversive.

Can you tell us more about the Devised Theater Working Group?

This is a brand new program of Under the Radar and the Devised Theater Initiative at The Public. The eight companies of the inaugural Devised Theater Working Group (DTWG) represent the next generation of artists who are wildly diverse in their theater practice and investigations. The companies include DarkMatter, Deconstructive Theatre Project, Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, Lucy Alibar, Katherine Brook/ Shonni Enelow/Televiolet, Daniel Koren, The Mighty Third Rail & PubliQuartet, James Monaco and Jerome Ellis.

The creation of the Devised Theater Working Group came out of a desire to engage more substantially with artists before and after their work is created. How can we provide resources to support artists in the commissioning, development and touring of their work? How can we help create the best environment to create work that has a long, beautiful and unpredictable process? DTWG offers these theater-makers a supportive framework in which to develop their work, engage in dialogue and each other's aesthetic practice. It is also a way for us to introduce these artists to a wider audience who might be unfamiliar with their work. We have a fantastic partnership with La MaMa, who co-curated these artists with us and are providing space and other resources for the DTWG. Audiences can get an introduction to these artists during UTR's INCOMING! Series at La MaMa. From real-time film to spoken word, from absurdist comedy to sci-fi concerts, these artists are creating new notions, visions and rhythms of theater.

MARK RUSSELL (UTR Co-Director) created the Under the Radar Festival in 2005. The Festival moved to The Public in 2006 and became an integral part of its season. From 1983-2004, Russell was the Executive Artistic Director of Performance Space 122 (P.S. 122).

MEIYIN WANG (UTR Co-Director/Director of the Devised Theater Initiative) has been with Under the Radar since 2006. She serves on the board of Theatre Communications Group and was the 2014 recipient of the Josephine Abady Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women. Born and raised in Singapore, Wang served as resident playwright and director with Singapore Repertory Theatre before moving to New York.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Oskar Eustis and Executive Director Patrick Willingham, The Public Theater is the only theater in New York that produces Shakespeare, the classics, musicals, contemporary and experimental pieces in equal measure. The Public continues the work of its visionary founder, Joe Papp, by acting as an advocate for the theater as an essential cultural force, and leading and framing dialogue on some of the most important issues of our day. Creating theater for one of the largest and most diverse audience bases in New York City for nearly 60 years, today the Company engages audiences in a variety of venues -- including its landmark downtown home at Astor Place, which houses five theaters and Joe's Pub; the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, home to its beloved, free Shakespeare in the Park; and the Mobile Unit, which tours Shakespearean productions for underserved audiences throughout New York City's five boroughs. The Public's wide range of programming includes free Shakespeare in the Park, the bedrock of the Company's dedication to making theater accessible to all; Public Works, a new initiative that is designed to cultivate new connections and new models of engagement
with artists, audiences and the community each year; new and experimental stagings at The Public at Astor Place, including Public Lab; and a range of artist and audience development initiatives including its Public Forum series, which brings together theater artists and professionals from a variety of disciplines for discussions that shed light on social issues explored in Public productions. The Public Theater is located on property owned by the City of New York and receives annual support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; and in October 2012 the landmark building downtown at Astor Place was revitalized to physically manifest the Company's core mission of sparking new dialogues and increasing accessibility for artists and audiences, by dramatically opening up the building to the street and community, and transforming the lobby into a public piazza for artists, students, and audiences. Key elements of the revitalization an expanded and refurbished lobby; the addition of a mezzanine level with a new restaurant lounge, The Library, designed by the Rockwell Group. www.publictheater.org

The LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust provides leadership support for The Public Theater's year-round activities; Bank of America, Proud Season Sponsor of Shakespeare in the Park; The Harold & Mimi Steinberg New Play Development Fund at The Public Theater Supports the Creation and Development of New Plays; The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation -- Lead Supporter of The Public's Access and Engagement Programming; The Time Warner Foundation, Founding Sponsor of The Emerging Writers Group; Delta Air Lines, Official Airline of The Public Theater; New York Magazine is the official print sponsor of The Public Theater's 2014-2015 downtown season; Public support is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency; and the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency.

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