September 8, 1995 BACK STAGE WEST

RATs Invade Seattle for Annual Alternative Theatre Conference
by Diane L. Snyder

In the 1960s and ‘70s, alternative theatres began springing up across the country. Their aim was to create a substitute for established, mainstream theatre. Today a bunch of theatre companies that specialize in work that is “off the beaten path” have formed an alternative to your standard theatre service organization -- and they call themselves RAT.

Some say RAT stands for Regional Alternative Theatre, while others insist it’s not an acronym but really the group’s full name, and should be spelled “Rat.” “There’s a sort of anarchy streak that runs through the name,” explained Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. “It’s generally reflective of theatres that survive by hunkering down and scurrying though cracks like rats.”

That should give you some idea of the loose structure that surrounded the second annual RAT Conference, a three-day event hosted by Seattle’s Annex Theatre, Aug. 25-27. Participants who spoke with Back Stage estimated that the weekend brought together 30-45 professional theatres and 50-75 theatre artists from across the country. Activities consisted of seminars, workshops, and performances designed to promote artistic discussions, organizational considerations, and networking opportunities.

But don’t equate informality of structure with a less-than-professional attitude about the art of theatre. What RAT may lack in structure, it makes up for in the enthusiasm of its members, who are striving to make the annual gathering a place where people will be able to find new plays, exchange ideas, and forge collaborations.

”It was a great way to make that personal connection,” said Catherine Porter, one of three co-producing directors at New York City’s Peculiar Works Project. “There were groups there I’d heard of, and I got to meet the people behind them.”

”It was just really freeing and liberating to find out that you’re not the only one, that there are a lot of other people out there doing the same kinds of things that you’re doing,” noted Annex’s Matthew Sweeney, a principal organizer of the conference.

The conference would never have happened were it not for Erik Ehn, a San Francisco-based playwright whose 1993 article in the Yale literary journal Theater spawned the formation of the RAT consortium. Ehn, along with Allison Narver, Annex’s artistic director, helped shape the first RAT Conference last December at the University of Iowa

An Anti-Organization Coalition

As with other theatre service organizations, one of RAT’s goals is to establish an ongoing support network for its constituents. But it seeks to do that without losing its grassroots format, according to Porter, who, like other conference participants, prefers to call RAT and annual conference rather than a full-fledged organization. Rat does not have elected officers, a budget, or a nonprofit status. There are no membership dues. And to keep attendance costs at a minimum, this year participants stayed for free in the homes of Annex members, who sought donations to pay for the cost of running the conference. Those whishing to attend only needed to provide their transportation to Seattle and back.

Shalwitz, whose company premiered Nicky Silver’s current Off-Broadway hit “The Food Chain” earlier this year, even hesitated to brand the participating theatres RAT “members,” opting instead for the term affiliates. “There’s no specific criteria for membership,” he explained. “But I think among these theatres there’s a kind of anti-organization impulse... It really is a kind of coming together of people with similar interests who want to meet each other and find ways to possibly work together, or see each other’s work, or learn from the another.”

”Big Cheap Theatre”

Topics covered at this year’s conference workshops included self-publishing plays, site-specific theatre, audience development, budgeting and financial management for the “Raggedy-Ass Smaller Theatres,” and ways to produce “Big Cheap Theatre,” which, Shalwitz said, means “working with little money and not accepting that that means you have to do small work.”

”[The conference] was the kind of thing that, if you wanted, you could go to seminars from 10 o’clock until 5 o’clock, or you could sit out on the patio and smoke cigarettes and exchange ideas,” Sweeney reflected.

Working with relatively low budgets has not prevented alternative theatres from staying technologically in touch. Many of the theatres at the conference are already hooked up to email and see it as an important tool for communicating with one another between the annual conferences. There was also talk of getting RAT a site on the World Wide Web, which would make it possible to set up features like a script-sharing service, according to Sweeney.

The RAT’s Next Move

Plans for next year’s conference were discussed in Seattle, but nothing has been finalized. However, Sweeney did say that one goal for ’96 is to try to attract a wider ethnic diversity. “It was an overwhelmingly white conference,” he said of this year’s event.

But if the conference continues to grow each year, will it eventually get too large and impersonal?

Sweeney acknowledged that the subject came up in Seattle, but didn’t seem too worried about that happening. “Personally I’m of the opinion that you can never have too many people or too much information,” he said. “If you have 20 people there and you’re able to talk to all 20 of them, that’s great. If you have 100 people there, you can still talk to the same amount of people.

A festival of new works in New Mexico may also happen sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, participating theatres are hoping to reap some of the benefits of t his year’s gathering. Porter said she would love to get involved in a co-production or see Peculiar Works host a theatre company. Shalwitz said his next step would be to “go around and see the work of different theatre companies,” and maybe plan a play-swapping or director-swapping somewhat down the line.

Other theatres taking part in the conference include Undermain Theatre (Dallas), Salvage Vanguard Theater (Austin), Seven Stages (Atlanta), Thieves Theatre (New York City), and Theatre E (San Diego).

Anyone who would like more information about RAT may contact: Matthew Sweeney, by e-mail at MSweeney@lesourd,, or phone (206) 233-9177.