Revived and Restructured, Undergroundzero Festival Kicks Off Tonight

The newly revived undergroundzero festival is kicking off a month-long celebration of experimental theater, dance and performance tonight with an impressive roster of free events at this year’s home base, The Living Theatre.  

After taking last year off, the festival, which began in 2007, has been restructured as a cooperative made up of 11 participating resident artists and companies that will present work of their own choosing.  I spoke with founder and Artistic Director Paul Bargetto and Executive Director Connie Hall about putting together the festival and where they hope to take it in the future.

Bargetto, a theater director, says he “accidentally” became the festival’s director when Executive Director Caterina Bartha invited him to program some productions at Collective:Unconscious in 2007 — and again in 2008.  When the opportunity arose, he decided to create an artist-driven festival, where the people involved and running it would all be independent artists and could present whatever type of work they wanted.

“The real big ‘get’ for the people coming in is that they have artistic independence,” Bargetto says, “I think that gives them confidence and creates a lot of good will.”

“Gradually it became a project that took on  a life of it’s own,” he says. “It moved to PS 122 (in 2009) and it got bigger, and a bit higher profile, but by end of 2010, it became unsustainable — the financial crisis made funding hard to come by and PS 122 closed for renovations.  I had to step back and re-think what to do with it in a way to make it sustainable.  So it became a co-operative, using the existing platform with invited guests, but run by all (of them) so the (operating) burden is shared with many companies.”

The resident artists and companies involved in this year’s festival serve as board of directors, which enables the festival to facilitate an exchange of labor, rehearsal space and ideas.  They have combined their mailing lists, in order to reach a larger theater community overall, and many will come together for various panels and free events throughout the festival, in order to create a larger “conversation” for all of them to participate in.

The festival has a very avant-garde reputation but for Bargetto it’s more about sustaining “Downtown Theater” and presenting work created by independent companies, with a nod to the current ensemble movement that has been gaining steam over the last decade or so.

Bargetto was delighted to discover that the Living Theatre was not only happy to offer up space for the 2012 festival but was interested in becoming a member of the cooperative. With their long history of radical, collaborative (yet anarchist) protest theater, it seems a perfect fit. “It’s a huge honor to have them be a part of it,” Bargetto says.

The focus going forward continues to be on sustainability and the hope is that they can stay in lower Manhattan.  Executive Director Connie Hall says they hope to secure funding to support developmental work outside of the festival, and building an international touring network is also in the works.

“It’s kind of like we’re trying to create a virtual neighborhood (for all of the artists) because the old neighborhood (downtown) is gone,” Hall Says. “More and more companies have moved out of Manhattan and there is no longer a creative center. “There’s the emotional side of all this which is feeling like you are working in isolation.”

Bargetto notes it’s a common existential problem that has emerged over the last decade. “It’s the perfect storm,” he says, “There’s a gigantic historical phenomena happening in New York City.  Up until even ten years ago, there were still spaces in Manhattan that artists could afford to be in and could present things, but I think those days are over. I think the creative places where there is affordable real estate are getting farther and farther out…but we don’t want to lose this center – we put a lot of time in down here and we feel like it’s our home and we don’t want to leave. So in order to keep it, this feels like the best way to sort of band together and try to find a way to sink some new roots here…and I can’t think of a better place to do that than the Living Theater.”

The undergroundzero festival kicks off tonight at 6:30p with a free panel discussion, “A Brief History of Avant Garde Theater in NYC” in which Columbia University professor Arnold Aronson will provide historical context for the current experimental theater-making environment in NYC, with Judith Malina of the Living Theatre.” Shows and events will also take place at Clemente Soto VelezJack & Scapegrace. For a full schedule of events and performances, visit their website here.