The virus explodes. The avant-garde arts festivals are coming to an end.

Last Wednesday, Under the Radar festival staff agreed on a way forward. They would limit the number of performances in the festival. T...


Last Wednesday, Under the Radar festival staff agreed on a way forward.

They would limit the number of performances in the festival. They would not offer any food or drink. The Public Theater, the host of this annual celebration of experimental performance, had previously demanded that members of the public provide the results of a negative PCR test or rapid antigen test, in addition to confirming vaccine status full.

Everyone agreed that these measures would ensure the safety of the public, artists and staff amid the current wave of coronavirus. The festival could open on January 12, as planned.

But Under the Radar artistic director Mark Russell woke up Thursday morning to realize that he and his colleagues were wrong.

“I was kind of in denial, going down the river of denial for a while,” he said on a video call Friday afternoon. “We tried all the adjustments until the last minute, and put a lot of work into re-ligating, then re-ligating again.”

With the increase in the number of cases, jigging has not gone so far. When he spoke on Friday, the audience came from announced the cancellation of the festival, citing “multiple disturbances related to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant in the community”. It was just after the exponential festival, a multi-site, multi-arts program based in Brooklyn, had made the decision to go fully online. And on Monday, Prototype, an avant-garde opera and musical theater festival, largely celebrated its 10th anniversary celebration which was to open on January 7. (A prototype show, “The Hang,” will still open, a little later in the month than expected.)

Developed to complement the annual Conference of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, these three January festivals have grown to fill a vital niche, introducing presenters and civilians to innovative theater and performance – local, national and international. It was announced on December 23 that the conference would go digital, which made subsequent cancellations less surprising, if not less sad.

Kristin Marting and Beth Morrison, two of Prototype’s founding directors, spent Friday morning telling artists that while the festival would pay their contracts, they couldn’t perform.

“It was a terrible day,” Morrison said on a conference call that afternoon. “Tears and, of course, understanding. But an incredible disappointment.

The cancellations reflect the difficulties of producing live performances in New York City during a pandemic, even assuming the most responsible health and safety practices. On Monday, the Joyce Theater said it would not be able to move forward with Ayodele Casel’s tap dance piece “Chasing Magic”, which was scheduled to open on Tuesday. Broadway is shaken by closures – most recently, the Manhattan Theater Club on hiatus ‘Skeleton Crew’ until Jan. 9 – and the unconventional, small-scale work championed by the January festival trio has been even slower to pick up in the city.

Now the public will have to wait another year, at least, before this bonus returns properly. And individuals and ensembles who create experimental works – and often depend on their touring income – will have to wait even longer for showcases.

When asked about the decision to cancel their shows, the directors of the three events listed the risks to performers and audiences, as well as visa issues and supply chain delays. Theresa Buchheister, artistic director of the Exponential Festival, cited the cost – in time and money – of testing artists every day.

Russell mentioned the high positivity rate among Public staff. “Maybe I would have been able to tell someone they couldn’t go on because we don’t have a technician to turn on the lights,” he said.

Ironically, the festivals all managed to open last year, albeit digitally. Prototype programmed six shows, including three world premieres and three new ones in the United States. Under the Radar offered seven shows, as well as an online symposium and access to work in progress. The exponential festival featured 31 astounding events, “Corona Cam Show” and “Purell’s Pieceamong them. But all of the artistic directors had been betting on a return to performing arts – a decision taken this summer, after vaccines became widely available but before the Delta and Omicron surges.

“Maybe we shouldn’t have planned to do so many things in person, but we really thought it was a choice that could happen,” said Buchheister.

Until very recently, this risk seemed low, especially compared to the potential rewards. “We’re live producers,” Morrison explained Wednesday, as Prototype still planned to move forward. “We are interested in live theater and live opera and singing in the hall and bringing people together and feeling each other’s heartbeats synchronized in the audience. This is why we do what we do and why we love what we do.

Silvana Estrada, a Mexican singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who had been hired to perform her “Marchita” at Prototype, described the frustrations of working digitally. “This is something I talk about a lot with my colleagues,” she said Thursday in a telephone interview. “Singing on a computer makes you feel so miserable. For me, having the opportunity to perform live again is an accomplishment that I have spent a lot of time without.

Prototype and Under the Radar had planned entirely live slates, believing that a hybrid model would divert too many resources – artistic and financial. Only the Exponential Festival had predefined an online option, with 15 shows to be presented live and four to be available on YouTube. But in late December, after Buchheister tested positive, the decision was made to move Exponential online entirely. Seven of the live shows chose to adopt a digital format; eight chose to postpone.

Dmitri Barcomi, the creator of “Case Studies: A New Kinsey Report,”Didn’t sound too upset. “I think an even higher level of privacy can be achieved with the added privacy of home viewing,” he wrote in an email. Plus, he added, “a lot of our generation found out about their homosexuality online, so it feels like a welcome party!”

But the online format hasn’t worked for everyone. “This play is meant to be experienced in person,” Marissa Joyce Stamps, writer and director of “Blue Fire burns hottest”, Which had been booked for Exponential, wrote in an email. And Under the Radar and Prototype didn’t think their scheduled jobs could or should pivot at the last minute. Instead, they both hope to return next year, perhaps in hybrid form, perhaps going all-in live.

“This is what we do,” said Marting, prototype director. “Because art has meaning in people’s lives. It is not for special occasions. It’s for the fabric of our lives.

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