Go Deeper

Under the Radar Re-Cap: Interviews with Nick and Pia

Posted January 22nd, 2009

Last week, the Live Arts Festival’s own Nick Stuccio (Producing Director) and Pia Agrawal (Programming Director) attended Under the Radar, an annual theater festival focusing on experimental, contemporary works created by artists from all over the world. While most of the productions there were engaging to the audiences, only a select few seemed to grab the attention our own producing staff. As an intern with the Festival over winter break, Jon Schaefer (Swarthmore ‘11) had the chance to interview the two of them to get a better idea of both their goals and their impressions.

Pia reported that Under the Radar presents a solid mix of artists, ranging from those who already have a strong, internationally established following to those just emerging on the scene. As Philly Fringe’s Programming Director, part of Pia’s job revolves around traveling to festivals like Under the Radar to scope out new and interesting performances that might fit in well with Philadelphia’s Live Arts Festival. One the work is programmed, she handles figuring out logistics like scheduling, travel, housing, and production. She remarked to me that she was particularly struck by two of the performances that week: Tim Etchell’s Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first , a piece presented as a sixty minute free-association monologue that stumbles from topic to topic creating a vast failing explanation of the world; and Rimini Protokoll’s Call Cutta In A Box, a piece where a single audience member is placed in an individual office room to have a lengthy conversation with an Indian call center employee who is, at the time, genuinely across the globe.

Talking to Nick, Jon confirmed his suspicion that running an arts festival each year is much more complex than just giving a few artists a stage. As the Producing Director, Nick is ultimately the person responsible for selecting shows for the Festival each year. However, Nick’s work also extends to handling all the performers’ technical needs—from lighting, to seating, to fundraising. To further elevate the status of the Live Arts Festival, Nick is not only constantly on the lookout for pieces on the cutting-edge of contemporary theatre, he’s also actively networking with established artists who might be interested in a Philadelphia debut for their newest creation. Nick also commented that he wasn’t particularly struck by any of the performances he saw last week, but nevertheless made a point of adding that his real mission—to just stay abreast of what’s going on in the arts world—was a complete success.

To read transcripts of the interviews with Nick and Pia, click the “Read More” link below.Nick’s Interview Transcript

Q: As the Live Arts-Philly Fringe Producing Director, what is your overall role in organizing the festival each year?

Nick Stuccio: Well, specifically, I act as both a curator—I pick the shows, and pick the rationale we use for picking the shows—and then I have a producerly role as well… and I guess I have an administrative role as well. As a producer I help put the right shows in the right venues, help translate what the artists need to the production department, help put the financing together for particular shows—help raise money in general, but often shows have a particular set of resources you can get for them—and then I work with Carolyn as a producer and manager to help get things like permits and all the other kinds of permissions we need from various sites, because we do a lot of work in crazy sites. And then administratively, I sort of have the… over-arching management view of the non-profit.

But the fun part, of course, the best part—the picking-of-the-shows part, the talking-to-the-artists part—one of the big times of the year to do that—to meet artists, to meet other presenters—is to meet in New York every year at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference. Part of that big, big conference is literally the five thousand presenting colleagues from around the world.

Q: So presenting means… the performing artist? The person who’s written the material, or choreographed the dance? Who exactly do you mean when you say “the presenter”?

Nick Stuccio: That’s a good question. Because it’s weird what we do—we’re not producers, because there are producers in Philadelphia with other theatre companies and other places, where they come up with an idea—an artist, a director, or a producer will say “I want to reinterpret some classic text, so here’s my vision: I’m going to hire a director, I’m going to hire an orchestra—I’m going to cast it in my vision to make this thing come to life.” We don’t do that—although we’re doing a little bit more of that. We present. So, what we’ll do is, we’ll take a beautifully finished work and we will find and rent a theatre, and we get audiences—we’re kind of the mediator between the work and the public. So we present it. We bring it to our town and we give it a stage.

Q: So would you say a big part of presenting is handling logistics?

Nick Stuccio: Yeah. While the show is produced, it’s got a light design, a set design—it’s created, it’s an existing thing. We also rent the appropriate performance space—whether it’s a theatre, or a train station, or whatever—and then we have a production department that executes its technical needs—its sound, its lighting, and its seating needs. So presenting is a key role, because lots and lots of artists make work, lots and lots of companies make work, and if they’re not producing and presenting it themselves—like they do at the Wilma, or the Arden… They produce work but then they also present the work. They make it, and they have a theatre, so they can present it. But most artists do the “making” part without the “presenting” part—they don’t self-present.

Q: Besides being a big fan of the arts yourself, what drew you to Under the Radar?

Nick Stuccio:
Well, in that big conference—where, as I said, there’s five thousand people who do what we do, from around the world—there’s a very small section of work in that big conference that’s pertinent to what the Live Arts Festival tries to do—which is experimental, contemporary work. So there are lots of symphonies, and comedy, and musicals, and Riverdance—and that stuff gets presented all over the place, like at the Kimmel Center and stuff. But our end of the business is Under the Radar. Stuff that’s new, a little more difficult, a little more aimed towards a niche audience.

Q: So when you extend the invitation to a group to work with the Live Arts Festival and do something here, do you ask them to come to Philadelphia to perform a particular piece, or do you leave the selection up to them?

Nick Stuccio: That’s a very good question. The answer is complicated—the answer is “yes” to everything. But typically, the basis for a good presentation is a good relationship with the artist. Of course, you sometimes get someone new who just explodes on to the scene and is fantastic, and I’ll see the work and really love it and present it, but more often it’s artists whose body of work I already know very well.

The more intimately I know the work, the better I can translate—the better I can talk to the press about it, the better I can translate it to the staff and tell them: “Here’s how we raise money, here’s how we talk about it, here’s what they’ve made in the past.” Knowing that artist and their body of work really helps with all of that. That’s why even when artists go “My work is fantastic! Look at the reviews! It’s fantastic! Please present it!” I’ll say “But I don’t know it. I don’t know you—it may be great, and I may be interested, but unless I can really understand the history, understand how it fits in with your sensibilities, how it fits in with other work, what it’s contributing to the trends in the field—without all of that, I’ve learned it often makes for a bad presentation.

But I will say that to make things exciting—to be a leading presenter—you want to have things originate at your festival. So if we can say “You’ll see it here first” or “We are a place where you will see the debuts, the origination of work—that’s also important for us. So my colleagues and I, we all sort of vie for—in fact, my job is to find—the most exciting new voices in the world that we can afford to bring here. So it’s key to find something that we’ve never seen before. Like “Wow, that’s an artist who’s saying something that nobody else is saying.” That’s like the Holy Grail—for us to find something really good that’s also really unique. And so we’re always traveling the world looking for that fresh, fresh statement.

Final question: If I were to ask you what piece you saw at the festival struck you as the most creative and original, which would you choose?

Nick Stuccio:I went to see Addicted to Bad Ideas by World/Inferno Friendship Society, which was fun—a big rock show. We presented that a couple years ago. I think chelfitsch Theater Company, the Japanese company—that was pretty good. But I didn’t love anything too much. That’s okay, because I didn’t really have that expectation—that never really is what happens. It’s all about accumulation—learning about artists, learning what’s happening in the field, making connections to what artists are making, and being interested in seeing how the artist puts something together. And when they make something else that might make a lot more sense to me, I’ll have that deep background knowledge to draw from.

Pia’s Interview Transcript

Q: So the first question I have is—as the Programming Director—what’s your overall role in organizing the Live Arts/Philly Fringe 2009 Festival?

Pia Agrawal: Well, Nick does most of the traveling and looking for the artists for our program, but, from there it’s meeting with the artists, figuring out logistics, sort of getting a good grasp on what the shows are, what they’re looking to do in the Festival, seeing how we can support them, seeing how the work fits into the programming for that year, and then, from all that, figuring out the logistics with both Nick and the artists: venues, schedule, production, and all the details that come with that.

Q: So what were you doing at the Under the Radar festival?

Pia Agrawal: I think, two things: one, just to check out the work that people are doing; there’s a lot of New York performers, international performers—just people from all around. Under the Radar exists under another, larger festival called APAP, which is organized by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters—that’s what APAP actually stands for. So it’s more about checking out what people are doing and a little about looking for things that we might program in the future.

Q: So how do you recruit artists for the Philly Live Arts festival? Were you approaching artists immediately after performances, or just getting in contact later?

Pia Agrawal: Mostly we would get in contact later. Honestly, for the five, six days we were there, most of the time I was running from one show to another, so I wasn’t talking to too many people for too long. Since there are so many presenters there, a lot of the artists will just follow up with us if we came to a show and ask what we thought, if we’re interested, things like that.

Q: So which theatrical performances did you see?

Pia Agrawal: Most of them were within Under the Radar. With Under the Radar, you register for the entire festival and there are exposed to a slew of shows, you go to a keynote speech and a breakout session, but mostly it’s going from show to show over the course of three days. It’s a smaller, more concise Festival within APAP and more along the lines, programmatically, of what we do. We do a presenters’ weekend, and it’s kind of a little bit like that, because you pick—at 4pm I want to see this show, at 7pm I want to see this show, and you’re just sort of moving with the crowd and seeing work up your alley, rather than going through and picking out individual shows from the massive amount offered throughout all of APAP.

I think the first work I saw was called “LIGA, 50% reward, 50% punishment”—and they had done a piece in the 2006 Under the Radar which I didn’t see—I saw a piece called “the break/s: a mixtape for stage” by Mark Bamuthi Joseph, who we’ve presented before; another piece called “The Crumb Trail,” a piece called “Last Dance” which was not part of Under the Radar—it was up at the Park Avenue Armory, which is actually a really nice building.

I also saw a piece called “Sight is the sense that dying people tend to lose first”—that was one of the things that I liked a little bit more. It’s by an artist, Tim Etchells, who has a piece that Nick and I are actually going to go see in Toronto in about a month and a half. A lot of his work is prose, stream of consciousness, random associations—the piece itself is one actor who is essentially reciting this free-association poem Tim Etchells wrote, about sort of how you would explain the world to or by a small child—or I think in the description it said “someone who is not even from this planet”—in a very strange way. Like, “blood is not red until it comes out of your body.” Or like “Skunks emit a smell to protect themselves from predators.” But then will go into more idiomatic, opinion-based, commentary on society. Part of the reason I really like his work is it shows you how global the human experience is—no human experience is single or unique, everyone goes through the same thing no matter what—the very basic human interactions are so similar.

Q: Yeah, wow. And he managed to do that with just one person, right?

Pia Agrawal: Yeah, it was just one guy talking for about sixty minutes. And the other piece that we’re going to see in about a month and a half is similar. The text is written by Tim Etchells—who is an adult—but it’s written from a child’s perspective, but because it’s written by an adult, it’s all the things that children learned that they don’t even realize that they’ve actually learned yet. Like the things that your parents teach you, like “don’t get into a car with strangers” and “three times three is nine, and three times four is twelve”—and it goes through the multiplication table—but then it’ll have things that your parents teach you that aren’t even taught directly—and it goes into very jarring things, since it’s all being performed by eight to fourteen year olds—like saying, “Blck people are lazy,” and, “Jewish people are cheap.” And, you know, your parents do teach you that; your parents are the ones who are instilling stereotypes or anything like that in you, so, to hear children say it when an eight year old is probably not going to fully comprehend what he’s saying but yet at eight, you are learning, your parents are teaching you, so it’s pretty interesting. And I like the way that he writes, his approach to writing.

Q: So when you went to see each of the shows at this particular festival, were they—the artists and the pieces themselves—things that you had already familiarized yourself with before going or were there a few occasions where you walked into a venue and didn’t really know what to expect?

Pia Agrawal: A lot of it was stuff that I had familiarized myself with before, because there is so much going on—I mean, APAP lasts six days—it’s not just contemporary, experimental work, it’s anything—every type of performing artist is doing something in New York. So it’s too hard to just go in and see whatever.

Q: Where most of the pieces you saw done by accomplished artists who had already had several successes, or were there a few done by “emerging” artists?

Pia Agrawal: There were definitely some emerging artists. I would say it’s a pretty good mix. Many of the artists I saw I’d heard of before but I hadn’t necessarily seen their work before. But there are definitely artists who show pieces of work, something in-progress, because they had just started working in this space or had just gotten a grant for their piece and were performing it for the first time and they hadn’t done too much before.

Under the Radar has a lot of artists whose work gets gigs in the US or abroad but some of them are artists that have never been presented in the States. There was actually a Cambodian group that was supposed to come—they couldn’t get their visas, which was sad because they hadn’t been here before. It’s basically the same way we do it: some of the artists we present have international reputations, whereas some of the artists we present you may never have heard of before.

If you had to pick a piece, which piece—ignoring the quality–would you say struck you as the most creative and original?

Pia Agrawal: I feel like—I can’t separate the two that well, it ended up being the piece I liked the most too, but—that’s the piece called “Call Cutta in a Box” by the Rimini Protokoll. And the piece is—they’re running in the same space multiple offices, but it’s one person per office—you just walk into this pretty huge office and—

So the venue itself was an office?

Pia Agrawal: Yeah, it was the Goethe Institute—it’s right across from the Met in New York. It was this huge, old, wood-paneled room with a fireplace in it, overlooking the park behind their building—a super, super nice space. And then there’s a desk with a computer, a printer, a plant, and, in the corner a little couch, a small coffee table—you’re in there for about two minutes—and there’s a phone on the table and the phone rings and you pick up and you’re connected with someone who’s working in a call center in Calcutta. And the piece itself is—you just talk to them, really.

For me, it was interesting just because my parents are from India, so to be able to talk to someone who works in a call center—and that’s their actual job, they’re not an actor who works in a call center, they actually work at the call center, and they’re hired by Rimini Protokoll. They go through the show with them and they train them and things like that, but—this is this person’s job. So you just go through an hour-long conversation with them, but at some point he’s like “Oh, if you’re in New York for work, you must be exhausted. Do you want a cup of tea?” And as soon as he says that you see the hot water kettle turn on—and he’s turning it on, from India, and you’re in New York. And that sort of technology—like, the ability to connect with someone who’s that far away, to sort of be in the room with you when he’s not even there—it’s pretty interesting. He also turns on the CD player, and tells you “I left something in the drawer for you”—and you know he didn’t actually put it there; someone in New York put it there, but it’s very strange. Then when sixty minutes goes by he just says “Okay. Time’s up.” Cut off. And you’ll never talk to that person again and suddenly you’re alone in the room again. It’s a very weird feeling, but definitely a very, very interesting idea.

Q: Wow. Sounds pretty cool. So is that something you’re thinking of bringing to Philadelphia?

Pia Agrawal: I think we’d like to. This group does some interesting work—they definitely have some very original ideas. So, if not that piece, I think we’d definitely like to work with them in the future.