Downtown Drama: The undergroundzero festival at P.S. 122

THE MISANTHROPE. PICTURED: ELISA MATULA & MATT BIAGINI. PHOTO BY YI ZHAO.

Paul Bargetto enjoys artists’ failures. Especially if the failures are huge—fall on your face, audiences hackling and the whole show going up in flames style. (Okay, maybe not the part about the hackling or the flames.) But Bargetto is not a sadist and does not have unreasonable schadenfreude tendencies; he simply believes risk taking is essential to theater making.

That’s why he created the undergroundzero festival, an experimental, laboratory theater festival in which he gives artists complete creative freedom. The third-annual event opens on July 7 with 14 plays and an inaugural play reading series at P.S. 122 and runs through July 26.

“Everybody has a dream about what they would really like to do and we’re always compromising,” Bargetto mused at a Williamsburg cafe. “My expectation is that you take a huge chance and you bring out [of] yourself whatever vision you were unable to because no one else would give you that opportunity.”

The accidental curator put together the first festival in 2007 when Collective: Unconscious offered him a three-week residency. (Fun fact: Bargetto lived in the theater’s basement when he moved to New York in 1996.) He saw a lack of opportunity for new and experimental work in the New York independent theater scene, and since the timing was bad for him to make his own production, he created a festival in order to collaborate with independent theater artists and companies throughout the city.

And before the first festival opened, he had no clue what was going to be onstage because he didn’t meddle in the artists’ rehearsals and artistic process. “I don’t curate pieces,” Bargetto explained. “I would only curate artists.”

This year he knows some of the pieces, but with others, he’s going to be surprised. The works will be in different developmental stages due to the laboratory nature of the festival, and although the artists are based in New York, their pieces couldn’t be more different. From an experimental adaptation of a New Yorker short story to a mixed-media staging of a 1970s film about terrorists to a contemporary take on a Molière classic, anything goes.

“Most shows are terrible but there are shows that are great,” Bargetto said about new theater. “But most of them will never be seen again because there’s no place to go. There’s no opportunity for them to be presented. Festivals start to fill that niche.”

While in Cape Cod, actress-playwright Eliza Bent was reading her New Yorker when she came across a story that would turn her passion for theater in a new direction. “Every good project begins on the beach,” Bent joked over tea in her Soho neighborhood. “I’d never really read anything that I felt really could live on the stage.” Bent has done a lot of acting work, but adapting, writing and producing a show were new territories for her to conquer. She began putting the story to a script as an experiment, and after holding an informal reading with friends, she decided to apply to the Soho Think Tank 6th Floor Series.

Unfortunately, that series was suspended because of economic troubles. So when she learned her friend Anna Brenner, a second-year graduate directing student at Columbia, was part of the undergroundzero festival, Bent decided to do a little moving and shaking. She had met Bargetto through friends at the first undergroundzero festival so she called him up and made her plea. “I don’t really think of myself as a playwright,” Bent emphasized. “And yet I had this script waiting around.”

The resulting play, She of the Voice, is an adaptation of Hari Kunzru’s story Magda Mandela about a rambunctious neighbor who stirs the pot in an East London neighborhood. (The play is set in New York.) When Bent met with Kunzru, he was very receptive to her take on the narrative. In Bent’s version, the story’s title character never appears on stage, but her voice radiates from offstage leaving the neighbors on stage to gossip about her lewd behavior. 

When asked to describe the piece’s style, Bent couldn’t name just one. “It’s everything under the sun,” she exclaimed. “It’s a comedy masquerading as an experimental piece pretending to be a musical.” Bent wrote lyrics for five short songs in the piece, and her roommate set them to music.

“I feel such a sense of ownership about it because it’s my project,” Bent said. “It’s a very different way of being an artist when you have the words just there on the page. It’s just so beyond my comfort zone.”

Anna Brenner, Bent’s friend who inspired her to join the festival, will present a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope. Each year, Bargetto brings at least one graduate student from Columbia (where he received his graduate degree in directing in 2005), and Brenner’s work consistently impressed him. While Columbia affords Brenner plenty of arenas for experimentation, she said it’s nice to be able to escape the university community for the summer. “I really feel like this is a space where I can do this classic play in a new and strange way, and that’s totally exciting and okay,” she said.

The setting for Brenner’s Misanthrope is Brooklyn, but the lyric text remains untouched from a translation by Tony Harrison. And like Bent, Brenner is merging many theatrical elements. “I’m really big on ensemble creation,” she said in a phone interview. However, she’s doing this within the confines of a classic piece, something she hasn’t attempted before. “It’s a great place for us to experiment.”

The most successful show to come out of the festival was The Ted Haggard Monologues from 2007. The show won the event prize and received a run at Collective: Unconscious. (This prize still exists with the addition of an audience prize last year, but there is no longer a concrete award attached to either because of economic constraints.) After its stateside run, the show moved to Germany in October 2008 to be a part of “Voices from Underground Zero,” the German edition of the festival. If it hadn’t been for the initial festival, however, writer and performer Michael Yates Crowley might never have made it back to theater.

“[Director and former collaborator Michael] Rau’s show dropped out of the festival, and he asked me at the very last minute,” Crowley recalled, adding that he hadn’t done much theater since college at the time. “That’s been one of the greatest things to come out of the festival was starting to work with him again.”

And this year the duo is bringing a new piece titled Evanston: A Rare Comedy. The play explores the inner workings of a women’s book club in a northern suburb of Chicago, and of course, disaster ensues. Crowley said this show will also move to Germany if they can raise enough funding.

Bargetto thinks writing is the strongest work happening in theater on a global scale so this year he added a play reading series, aptly titled playgroundzero, in order to cultivate the writing craft. “The productions are small because they’re for small stages, and so it’s great to bring readings because you can bring projects at least that have a scope that could be maybe larger,” he said.

“The series will showcase five plays by inventive writers who are challenging the way audiences view theater,” said playwright and series curator Saviana Stanescu, adding that readings are essential to advancing the art form. “We need to exchange ideas and have an open dialogue, and we need to challenge the mainstream through artistic excellence and innovation,” she wrote in e-mail from Romania.

By giving each work a short life, Bargetto hopes the festival might act as a “springboard” to push these shows to the next level. There are countless theater festivals in New York, he said, but few offer the hands-off approach of undergroundzero. “People never ask you to just do whatever you want,” he declared. “You have to be famous for someone to do that. I think [this] gives people a sense of ownership over their work.”

Director Doris Mirescu, who’s presenting a mixed-media adaptation of the 1979 Fassbinder film The Third Generation at this year’s festival, said while artists dream of their work moving on, she’s content to have this outlet for now. “Most important is to have the opportunity to do it in the present,” Mirescu reflected. “If we’re honest and true to what’s happening in the moment, then the future will come.”

The undergroundzero festival runs July 7-26 at PS 122, 150 First Ave. (at E. 9th St.). For more information, please visitps122.org.

Contributor

Suzy Evans

Suzy Evans is an arts journalist who plans to write about theater for the rest of her life. She is currently working on her Master's in Journalism.

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