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25 Years on the Edge: Mark Russell on Out There’s Anniversary

By Philip Bither

One of the most influential “outsiders” involved with the Walker’s Out There performance festival over its 25-year history is New Yorker Mark Russell. His connections go back to the series’ first year in 1989. By then, he was the director of PS122, a once-abandoned school in the East Village that he helped transform into a thriving and now-legendary venue at which some of Out There’s earliest performers got their start. I credit Mark, and his impeccable eye and ear for discovering artists early in their careers, with two of my favorite Out There groups, whose work I first saw at PS122: Elevator Repair Service and Improbable Theatre.

Over the years, as he moved on to found the Under the Radar festival at New York’s Public Theater, Mark and I have continued to collaborate formally and informally, recommending, supporting, and commissioning shows and artists. What follows are excerpts from our recent conversation about that shared history.

Philip Bither

Performance has gone through a lot of cycles during the past 25 years, many of them overlapping or even occurring simultaneously. Part of my interest in talking with you was to touch on some of that progression. I see Out There’s own history reflecting some of these transformations, beginning with monologue work and identity-based solo performance, and later, the increasing attention on international work—an openness to diverse cultural voices, casts who represent more than a white downtown avant-garde community. And then, since the mid- to late ’90s, we’ve seen much more ensemble-based work and hybrid forms—movement theater, puppet theater, media-based performance—lots of variations.

All of that reinforces our reasons for calling this program “Out There.” It meant we didn’t have to say “theater” or “dance” or “hybrid interdisciplinary work” or something even more awkward. It reminds me of how you made a case for calling this world just “performance” in your book Out of Character: Rants, Raves and Monologues from Today’s Top Performance Artists. Can you expand on that a bit?

Mark Russell

I always had a head for theater, and as PS122 evolved I began to see that the best work was combining or moving between genres and disciplines. Those were the cracks where the light gets in. Those small transgressions are where the bright ideas come. Often they come out of mistakes, and often they’re about challenging the structures or the regular way of doing things. “Performance” was a great way to put it, because the people who were making things were dancers who were starting to talk, or filmmakers like John Jesurun starting to make theater. Performance is a smooth and fluid place where a lot of this can live. Trying to capture or name this work is like trying to hold onto Jell-O, because it’s supposed to move. Right now everyone’s calling it “devised theater.”

Bither

In that instance, maybe it’s the mainstream theater-world feeling that gives a handle on what exactly this stuff is. But looking back on our own history and the histories of these art forms, I’m proud of the fact that so many artists presented in the earlier years of Out There are now considered icons in the contemporary performance world—Ping Chong, Anne Bogart, John Jesurun, Improbable Theatre, Richard Maxwell, Young Jean Lee, Elevator Repair Service. But of course, there are other artists I’ve had to Google to find out who they were and what they are doing now.

But based on the incredible histories at PS122 and now the Under the Radar festival, how do you view the search for the next great visionary artist? Or is that beside the point? Maybe the search is for art and artists that are vital and relevant to a particular moment and not necessarily for the history books. And also, if we’re supporting these so-called emerging artists, to whom are they emerging?[laughter]

Russell

Yeah, “emerging” is such a weird term. It’s all relative. I used to remind people that Eric Bogosian was an emerging artist in Hollywood, but he was a superstar in downtown New York. [laughter] I think in some ways you can look at all these movements and the ones that stick … the people who are able to do the long distance, it’s quite an achievement. I was always amazed by Merce Cunningham—until his last days, he was one of the most radical artists and could kick the ass of any youngster downtown! He was challenging.

Bither

He sent more audience members running up the aisles than many downtown performance artists who’ve been considered transgressive.

Russell

Exactly. That used to really put it all in perspective for me. One of the nice things about PS122’s work is that we had Ginsberg, Cage, and Merce doing our benefits and coming by. So artists saw themselves in a long line of creators in that way. Sometimes I feel like some of that’s beginning to be lost. Well, we’ll see. We continue to keep these things moving.

Bither

In your introduction to Out of Character, you credit punk rock as informing performance in the ’70s and ’80s, as much as avant-theater art movements in Europe or performance art bubbling up from the visual art world. Why is that?

Russell

It’s about giving license to speak. In punk rock it was, “You’ve got a guitar and four chords. What’s your story? What’s your rage? Get up there and say it. It doesn’t matter if it’s all cleaned up or if you only know the four chords. Let’s go.” PS122 was in some ways a reaction to that energy, put towards performance: “You’ve got a story. Just stand up there and tell us that. Or dance us that story. Take whatever you have and put it onstage.” The technology of course changed, and the world changed, so that a lot of those previously unavailable tools are now at your disposal. You could take a Casio keyboard and create a soundtrack.

Bither

With punk a big part of its power—the rawness and sense of freedom around expression—it wasn’t based on extensive training or tremendous technique, but unprocessed human emotion. That seemed to me to be a big part of the aesthetic around PS122 in its early years.

Russell

Definitely. The best thing performance can do, in theater and in dance too, is give voice to people who have not been heard. All that work that came out of the AIDS movement—maybe you can’t get a television series about your sexuality, but if you have just a little bit of spit and glue, you can do that in the theater and get your community heard and build from there. The theater’s best use can be as a place for the disadvantaged to find a voice, and often those voices change or challenge the way things have been done in performance. They’ll crack the code of “Oh no, you can’t!”

For instance, it used to be that theater really looked down on monologues. When I was growing up in the ’70s, a solo performance was just a monologue, not theater. People forget that it took Spalding Gray and a lot of other people to make the world safe for people like Mike Daisey and others. Now solo shows are really considered part of the mainstream; there are so many of them.

I wanted to touch on how Out There was a keystone for the world at PS122. It was one of the first places where you could get out and find a platform outside of New York, outside our art ghetto. Getting an Out There gig was a big deal—it meant you had started to arrive. There were other places around the country, but Out There was special because it was attached to the Walker, this place that took care of the history of performance and dance, and had such a long record with the masters of our time, our contemporaries.

Bither

So the Walker’s history in contemporary art and performance work going back to the late ’50s/early ’60s became part of the allure of Out There for performers.

Russell

Yes. For artists, Out There started a conversation with someone like [John] Killacky, or yourself, which early in a career can open up so many avenues. To have someone not only like what you’re doing but help you tune it in just the right way—that light dramaturgical touch that you guys brought to this field did shape the field. The fact that once artists had proven themselves through Out There and were able to later perform as part of the main season at a venue—either at the Walker or somewhere in New York or another city—that was really important.

Bither

Looking back, I’m proud of these now-long relationships and cycles of work we’ve been able to develop with artists, whether it be Cynthia Hopkins or Elevator Repair Service or Young Jean Lee or others, who have then gone on to do work in other, larger-scale projects. Partly because of those names associated with it, Out There makes it easier to introduce other artists who are completely unknown.

Sometimes there might not be any way to make it clear what a group is up to, but if their work is part of a program that people have come to trust, we’re going to have a certain foundational audience for them. Without the context and history of Out There, it’s much harder to build the case in Minnesota for unknown performers. Did you find a similar situation with Under the Radar, or during the years you directed the TBA Festival at PICA [Portland Institute of Contemporary Art]?

Russell

The wonderful thing about a festival is that it can create or re-create that petri-dish culture of a place like PS122 for a short time within a bigger institution. People say, “OK, it’s Out There. I’m going to go see something that may not work, but I have seen people like Ann Carlson or Improbable Theatre there.” That can be so exciting, almost like a state fair, where sometimes the rules go out the door and you come to the theater three or four times in a week. That’s what we’re trying to build with Under the Radar—letting the audience take risks and the artists take risks. This curatorial umbrella gives audiences an access point. That’s what it’s about, giving people access to be surprised, to take a chance, to see challenging work, to grow with an artist. Isn’t that what we’re trying to do all along—what gets you and me up in the morning? [laughter]

Bither

Absolutely.


Philip Bither is the Walker Art Center’s William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator, Performing Arts.

“I began to see that the best work was combining or moving between genres and disciplines. Those were the cracks where the light gets in.” —Mark Russell

Radiohole, Whatever Heaven Allows, Out There 22 (2010)

Ann Bogart/Suzuki International Theater Institute, The Medium, Out There 8 (1996)

Gob Squad, Kitchen (We Never Had it So Good!), Out There 23 (2011)

Cynthia Hopkins, Accidental Nostalgia, Out There 17 (2005)

Ping Chong, Elephant Memories, Out There 3 (1991)

Richard Maxwell, Joe, Out There 17 (2005)

Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company, Untitled Feminist Show, Out There 24 (2012)

Photo by Blaine Davis