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Why Do Theater? Every Year, International Festival Looks For Answers

Violet Newman is one of five young girls who make up the cast of <em>Employee of the Year</em>, one of the plays being featured at this year's Under the Radar Festival.
Maria Baranova
Courtesy of the Public Theater
Violet Newman is one of five young girls who make up the cast of Employee of the Year, one of the plays being featured at this year's Under the Radar Festival.

Every January, as temperatures plummet, New York's Public Theater opens its doors to Under the Radar, a festival that features cutting-edge theater from around the world. Occasionally, these shows have moved onto the radar — like Gatz, an eight-hour adaptation of The Great Gatsby, which eventually had several runs at theaters across the country.

Meiyin Wang and Mark Russell, co-artistic directors of Under the Radar, crisscross the globe every year trying to answer a single question. "In this day," Russell says, "when there's all sorts of great ways of telling stories and everyone's got a camera ... we're looking at: Why do theater now?"

Sung Hee Wi and Aoi Nozu perform in Japan's <a href="" target="_blank">God Bless Baseball</a>, which explores the sport's popularity in the country.
Moon So Young / Courtesy of the Public Theater
Courtesy of the Public Theater
Sung Hee Wi and Aoi Nozu perform in Japan's God Bless Baseball, which explores the sport's popularity in the country.

Over 12 days, Russell and Wang present their answer to that question. It's kind of like a film festival, where audiences can see three, four or five shows in a single day.

"I am trying to demystify this downtown-y thing," Russell says. "This is for everybody. All of these stories have an integrity of purpose; everyone should be able to approach them without having to know anything about the history of avant-garde art."

This year, Under the Radar is presenting work from Chile, Japan, France, Canada, Rwanda — and Brooklyn, N.Y. In a rehearsal studio in the borough's Park Slope neighborhood, a company called 600 HIGHWAYMEN is rehearsing its new show, Employee of the Year. The cast consists of five young girls, but the tale they're telling is far beyond their years. Co-artistic director Abigail Browde says it's the life story of one woman. "It's like a contemporary journey myth," she says. "So it starts when she's 3 years old, and it ends in her 80s."

Browde says the disconnect between the adult content and who's delivering it is what makes the show work. "The performance is most effective when ... you get snapped back to reality and it's like, 'Oh wait, I forgot she was 10,' " Browde says. "So there's actually a friction and a collision between where the story goes and who the messenger is."

Dorothée Munyaneza plays her 12-year-old self in <em>Samedi Détente</em>.
Laura Fouqueré / Courtesy of the Public Theater
Courtesy of the Public Theater
Dorothée Munyaneza plays her 12-year-old self in Samedi Détente.

The messenger in another Under the Radar work is also a pre-teen, but she's portrayed by 30-something Dorothée Munyaneza. Samedi Détente is about Munyaneza's 12-year-old self trying to survive the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In a phone conversation from her home in France, Munyaneza says she started to work on the piece two years ago.

"Somehow, symbolically, it meant a lot to me to address my memory, my history, 20 years afterwards," she says. "And I chose to write and to create this choreographic, musical, historical storytelling piece."

Munyaneza begins the production in a blue dress that's inspired by her school uniform. She's crouched on top of a table, singing a song to the accompaniment of a man sharpening his machete. "This object, which was normally used as a tool for cutting wood or killing animals for food, suddenly became this tool for killing," Munyaneza says, "and killing massively and killing people cruelly."

The song was written by Munyaneza and it's based on a story her cousin told her about her aunt dying in a refugee camp. Munyaneza says she hopes to find some kind of peace through the work.

"I'm trying to share this story," she says. "I'm trying to leave something in the minds and hearts of people who will carry it. And it's something I can only do through art."

And that's just what Under the Radar's artistic directors want: to present work that is urgent and relevant, and stories told in a surprising, accessible way.

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Corrected: January 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
In the audio introduction of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was part of the Under the Radar festival. It was not.
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.
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