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Putting It Together: Paul Bargetto Sets Up undergroundzero Once Again

by Karen Tortora-Lee on July 13, 2010

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If you read Stephen Tortora-Lee’s review of the multimedia show about the little puppet that could – Alvin Sputnik – then you already got a taste of one of the shows that’s happening as a part of undergroundzero - a theatre festival happening throughout July and taking place at PS 122.  We’ll be covering a few more of the shows being offered, but I also had an opportunity to find out from curator Paul Bargetto exactly how this festival came about, how he finds these talented artists, and how  Pinchbottom Burlesque has become the naughty crown jewel of the festival . . .

The undergroundzero festival has been around for four years now. Tell me a little bit about how it got started.

In the winter of 2006 I had just returned from Europe and my friend Caterina Bartha from Collective:Unconscious called me and offered me a three week residency to make something in their space in Tribeca on Church Street. (I have been involved with C:U off and on since 1996.) I did not have a project ready and no funding in place so I suggested we use the time to make a festival. Before this, I had never considered making a festival, but I had a few ideas of what I would like a festival to be. I wanted it to be more of a flying repertory theater, a move-able community of artists, rather than a curated festival. To that end I selected artists and allowed them to bring a project of their choosing.

How has the undergroundzero festival grown over the years ?

Each year, more and more artists have approached me and it has grown in scale and complexity. After 2008, the festival moved to PS 122 and this gave us a much bigger platform with two theaters and more sophisticated technical abilities. The audiences have continued to grow as has the community of artists affiliated with undergroundzero. This year we have made the most ambitious festival yet by inviting five international companies to join our New York based artists. This has been a heavy lift for all of us, but the rewards have been fantastic. I hope that now by becoming international we will create new dialog and opportunity for our NYC based artists and perhaps come to a better understanding or our place in the global theater community.

Are there any parts of the festival that just happened along the way that are now considered hallmarks – things that make you say “ahh, it wouldn’t be ungergroundzero if we didn’t have . . .”?



By allowing the artist creative freedom we always end up with a very eclectic mix of performances and styles and I would say that is a hallmark of the festival. That and the passion and risk taking that the artists bring to their work.

We have also programmed Burlesque every year with our favorite troupe Pinchbottom Burlesque. I love having that naughty erotic energy in the festival, something that Times Square used to have but has lost.

I’m interested in the title. I love how it’s a little ambiguous, a little difficult to parse when you first read it . . . underground zero? under Ground Zero? Is it intentionally poetic? And even if it is – can you tell me what it means to *you*?

The title was coined by my friend Saviana Stanescu, a fabulous poet and playwright and its poetic ambiguity is entirely intentional. For me, it is partially a reference to the physical geography of downtown and certain historical events, and also, it is an artistic marker, an aiming point if you will, that defines our place in the theatrical landscape.

Not only do the shows in the festival cover a wide range of topics in genres that run the gamut from burlesque to dance, video, song, and multimedia but the artists also hail from far flung parts of the world – Australia, Wales, Italy, Romania and Germany. Tell me how you, as curator, got all these shows together.

One of my favorite developments of the festival has been the informal network of artists and producers who have gathered together around the festival. They have formed a kind of magic net that has captured many like minded fellow travelers. Artists come to me through references, or I stumble upon them, others I have known and worked with for years. As a director myself, I am deeply in interested in artists and what drives them. I suppose I am somewhat less interested in what forms or themes those passions and obsessions take so long as they work and have power in them. I am looking for artists to take risks, to experiment, to find their voices and grow. My hope is to assemble a wildly diverse community of artists and voices fed and intoxicated on a diet of respect, common interest, liberty and a bit of revolutionary generosity.

Tell me more about the special events “latenightzero” and “commonground”.

latenightzero is a weekly dance party where the artists and public can mingle and dance all night. I love to be in a room full of artists and audience, fresh from the show, full of adrenaline and the intoxication of the performance, set loose on a dance floor.

commonground is a new event, and one I wish I had thought of earlier. Saviana Stanescu and I use a talk show format to introduce the artists and talk about their work on the Tuesday before their run starts. The first one last week was a big success and really helped develop a sense of community and excitement among the artists and public. The next events will also highlight the international artists and help introduce them to New York.

When you’re not curating undergroundzero, how do you spend your time?

I am a director, so my time is mostly spent making new work, or looking for opportunities to do so, and chasing after money. Lots of chasing after money, and practicing the fine arts of conjuring, magic, slight of hand, and prayer to find it.

I actually do not consider myself a curator, I see my work as that of an Artistic Director. I also work a part time job to stay alive and pay the rent in the corporate headquaters of a big cosmetics company.

Final question – bonus topic! You can tell me anything you’d like- something about the theatre in general, the festival, or something completely off topic that you want people to know about. Your latest obsession, a good joke – anything. The mic is yours!

I have been blessed with some amazing producing partners, without whom undergroundzero would be impossible. They are Jennifer Conley Darling, Arwen Lowbridge and Valentine Lysikatos.


Thanks, Paul for giving us a great tour through what it’s like to be the ringmaster of such a great festival.

Click here for more information about undergroundzero – and check back here to see THM reviews of some of the shows!

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