The Man Who Sees the Future

The Walker’s Philip Bither on spotting the next big thing

Philip Bither, the curator of performing arts at the Walker Art Center, has unpacked his bags in every art capital on every inhabited continent. He was recently in Germany and South Africa, and he usually travels to New York a half-dozen times a year. He checks into a hotel and by nightfall is ensconced in an auditorium, a sweaty club—wherever a tip has taken him, turning up rocks on the frontier of music, dance, and theater. He is one of the few curators in the country charged with looking for the Merce Cunningham or Tricia Brown of our time, and he’s been finding them for 16 years. Within five minutes after the curtain has risen, he can tell if he’s scored—“If the performance does or doesn’t relate to our audience,” he says.

This month, the Walker hosts the 25th annual Out There festival, four weekends of cutting-edge theater, “a telescope into the future,” Bither says. In the 1980s, when the festival began, the shows were a bit self-involved—a good deal of solo performances and identity themes. Bither came to the Walker in 1997 from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, or BAM, and has been on “a crusade,” he says, to better bridge audiences and performers, giving viewers “new ways into the work.” This year’s troupes include a German collective of women acting alongside their fathers in a modified King Lear and an Australian company humorously imagining the god Ganesh traveling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient Hindu symbol. Bither talks about all of this with affable ease, as though he were describing the new Kate Perry single. It’s where pop culture is going, he’s just already there.

Many acts he’s booked, like London’s Improbable Theater or New York’s Elevator Repair Service, have gone on to bigger stages and broader acclaim. But success can be just as befuddling as failure. “The hardest opening nights for me are when audiences are bored but I’m ecstatic or when the art failed but audiences loved it,” Bither says. “You lie awake, questioning your instincts.”

For more on the Walker Art Center, read “Get Out There.”