October, 1997 PLATFORM magazine

by Chris Jeffries


On the plane headed to New York for the RAT Conference I read some of Ray Grigg's The Tao of Zen. Struck by how often one could substitute "RAT" for "Zen" in his sentences, such as: "Whatever you can say about Zen, the opposite is also true." Also struck by another, more unsettling, parallel: Grigg's premise is that the Zen in Zen Buddhism is really Taoism and that the Buddhism part is a later cultural accretion, though the official history was later altered to partially conceal the embarrassing fact that Buddhism, while perfectly admirable, is not the root of Zen and in fact has very little in common with the Taoism/Zen which somehow crawled into it, like a hermit crab trying on someone else's empty shell. If RAT is in some ways analogous to Zen (in my mind, anyway), then what is it about what we're doing that is the Buddhism part, the part that we take for granted as the core but is really nothing but someone else's empty shell? Is theatre itself a red herring, the empty shell that we all assume is the ground of RAT activity (or inactivity), when actually it's something else not dependent on theatre at all? Or maybe theatre is the core and the "something else" is the shell we could just as easily discard?

Have I lost you? Welcome to RAT.


It begins with everyone in a circle introducing themselves and saying a bit about where they're from and what they're up to. And helping themselves to RAT SASS beer (see label), which was created especially for the Conference. The Seattle conference, which is the only other one I attended, began much the same way, but of course there are differences. The first conference, in Iowa in late 1994, had been an exploration of whether such a thing as RAT should exist. Seattle's conference, hosted by Annex Theatre in August '95, was a celebration of RAT becoming a reality. Since then there have been conferences in Minneapolis and in Austin, and now here we are in New York quietly carrying on the business of RAT.

What is the business of RAT? Not specifically to bitch and moan about making theatre in a society that remains, by and large, monumentally unimpressed, though there's certainly plenty of that. Not specifically to "network" and make commitments to work together, though plenty of that goes on too. Not specifically to swap survival tactics and how-to lore, though the bulk of scheduled meeting time is devoted to just such topics. So why are we here in this room together? Mainly, for the purpose of being in this room together. We're here to offer our emptiness -- not so it can be filled with others' know-how or shared gripes or job opportunities, but for its own sake, for the thrill of our own and others' emptiness. A RAT Conference, if it's anything, is a kind of revival meeting, a chance for companies and artists isolated by distance and marginality to see each other's faces, to shake hands, to tell stories. To look at the size of the circle -- and it's just the first day; by no means is everyone even here yet -- and realize just how many people are out there doing the impossible over and over, toiling in the trenches, handing on the fire. There, in these faces, is all the proof you'll ever need that theatre cannot be stopped; that the shredding of funding, the proliferation of junk media, the incredible frustration and burnout, haven't a chance against the power of what we continue to create, daily, out of nothing.


"The Electronic RAT" is the topic. RAT has a web page (rat.whirl-i-gig.com, still the best source of information on what RAT has been) and everyone agrees that there need to be several, decentralized RAT pages to avoid the appearance of a single RAT "party line" or official spokesperson. One self-styled "ex-RAT" who nonetheless showed up to say hi to everyone stated unequivocally "I need to hear what EXACTLY RAT is before I can say that I'm one. WHAT is the POINT? WHO can BE one?"

Previous convocations of RATs have struggled with these questions, none arriving at definitive answers, at least nothing more helpful than

What is Jazz? If you have to ask, you'll never know. Louis Armstrong

RAT is not an "organization"; it has no leaders, no board, no by-laws, no dues, no admission price, no structure, no incorporation, no affiliation, no requirements, no applications, no nonprofit status, no hierarchy, no ethic, no rules, no purpose. In fact it has no name: "RAT" was never formalized, it's just a term that stuck, a term which both is and is not an acronym (for "Regional Alternative Theatres," "Raggedy-Ass Theatres," "Rogues in American Typecasting," or whatever else you want). At the Seattle conference, in fact, we discussed changing the name, to further avoid becoming another blah-blah-blah arts institution; but how do you change the name of something that has no name....

None of this, of course, makes RAT easy to explain to prospective "members"; anyone can be a RAT, but the sheer difficulty of conveying what is "is" to "be" one has led at times to accusations of elitism, which is worrying everyone. Is it time to codify, to clarify... something?


Thankfully, no. Nothing is formalized, but some things are clearer. Erik Ehn, a playwright based in San Francisco whose open letter in Yale's Theater magazine has been called the original catalyst of what became RAT, proposed a --gulp-- mission statement. The gist: RAT stands for "Room And Transportation." Participation in RAT hinges upon the offering of hospitality: coffee, donuts, a couch to crash on, a ride from the airport, RAT SASS beer. RATs are people who extend hospitality to other RATs: by hosting a conference, making or bringing breakfast, and on up to swapping scripts or productions. This relieves everyone of the burden of defining the "type of theatre" one needs to be or do, which is impossible anyway since RAT theatres fit no mold: budgets range from zero to millions of dollars, organizational structures vary from ultra-traditional to nonexistent, and programming veers wildly, not only between but within each company -- and besides, many RATs aren't associated with a particular theatre at all.

Erik's idea is generally approved of, but no one suggests we vote on it or otherwise "adopt" it. He goes on to suggest a trio of leaders elected annually by whoever's in the room at the time. Then basically admits he's being a devil's advocate even to bring up the idea. We agree to let things stand as they are, with nothing defined, nothing official, no one in charge. Palpable relief all around. We go on to discuss co-productions, several of which have already been happening. Annex in Seattle, for instance, has not only hosted a conference but in only two years since has collaborated with several RAT groups from all over the country. Is it possible for shoestring theatres thousands of miles apart to work together? Come on, nothing any of us do is possible, but who's letting that stop us?

Forgot to say that last night a bunch of three-minute plays were presented in an event directly inspired by Rain City Projects' Night of 1000 Playwrights held in Seattle earlier this year, and featuring playwrights, directors and actors from all over the map, inside and outside RAT ranks. Co-production? Nothing simpler.


Remember that quote about anything you can say about it, the opposite is also true? Today's seminar on "Grantwriting, Marketing and Schmoozing" is just as well-attended as yesterday's roundtable on "doing away with box office." And what we learned from both meetings can be pretty much boiled down to the Red Queen's advice to Alice, "Remember who you are...."


Lots happened Tuesday but I'm not the one to describe it since Ed and I were out exploring New York and seeing old friends there. I'll take this opportunity to point out that lots more went on than what I'm reporting. Lunches, dinners, late-night drinks were all a series of free-floating RAT Conferences in miniature. The best story swaps happened outside the printed schedule. Simply arguing over where to have dinner was often more stimulating (and revealing) than all the shop talk could ever be. Unfortunately, you had to be there. And I ought to take this opportunity to worry that I'm making all this sound way too serious. RAT is very important to its constituents; amazing things have happened under its umbrella, and many of our lives have been changed by those things. RAT is also kind of a joke, and taking it seriously can be the biggest joke of all. Were Ed and I, off playing hooky, the least or the most conscientious RATs today?


Playwright Jeffrey Jones is here to participate in a workshop/discussion on directing/performing new work. We watch five very different stagings of his three-minute play Camelot, then use them as a springboard to discuss the relationship of director, actor, and text. Which of these is the "authority?" Which should "prevail?" While respect for playwrights, and concern for their feelings, is generally shared by all present, opinions vary on the "sanctity" of the page -- interestingly, it is the playwrights present who present the widest spectrum of attitudes toward "taking liberties" with what's written down. No one seems to have a personal hard-and-fast rule about it one way or the other; each case is different. Nick Fracaro (Thieves Theatre) asks if the director, actors and author can work as a jazz combo, each taking turns "taking it" for a chorus or two.

Jones, perhaps surprisingly, comes down squarely on the performers' side of the question -- a question which, in fact, he insists is only an issue "when there's an angry, untrusting playwright in the room." He realized, the first time he had to direct his own work, that he had two options: to give the text the status of Bible or dogma, or to focus on the actors and how to help them do what they do as well as they can do it. "Let's face it, the reason you go to the theatre is to watch actors kicking ass," for "the joy" they find in being terrific, which the rest of us can't help but get caught up in. If the play is working for them, it'll work for the audience; if something in the text is being contradicted by their performance, it will likely trip them up and, in fixing it for them, in making it work for them, you resolve the textual conflict automatically. It sounds far too simple to actually work. But here's this veteran playwright (who happens to be a hero of mine) calmly stating that that's what works for him. Who'd've thought.


At last, the "Press, Critic, and RAT" roundtable. For a non-organization which does not solicit press attention, and which in fact has angrily rebuffed certain attempts at coverage, RAT has generated an inordinate amount of ink, including large feature articles in our most prestigious theatre journals -- representatives of most of which are sitting at this meeting. RAT has never sent out a press release, never talked PR, never asked anyone to write about it. Yet the articles pour in (including this one). There's even a suburban family from Massachusetts sitting in the circle; they read the article on RAT in the Sunday New York Times and thought they'd check it out. The screams of those who called us elitist a few months back have barely died down, but look -- mainstream America is finding its way to our door and into the circle. In failing, we succeed....

There's also a guy named Aristide who, moments before the wrap-up, starts ranting about how he expected hundreds of people here and why aren't we getting out the hype? At which point he veers into a discussion about how New York needs more kiosks, or at least I think that's what he was talking about. Nick wonders aloud if he's the devil; he is, indeed, a kind of personification of the demon of hype, if there is one, eloquently proving many RATs' point about press without any RAT having to articulate it. Afterward his girlfriend wanders in and strips down to change outfits in full view of the street, making Robert, who runs the Ohio, decidedly nervous. Nick invites them both to perform at TIRZA'S WINEBATH (see below). They refuse, saying it doesn't sound like there'll be enough "agent-type people" there. No, there probably won't.


The Conference convenes at the Coney Island Museum, right upstairs from the freak show, where various RATs assist Thieves Theatre in the "curation" of this weekend's installment of TIRZA'S WINEBATH, a fanciful recreation of the most notorious of the fin-de-siecle girlie shows at "Sodom by the Sea." The afternoon's setup was loosely divided into two camps; those who did not want to "plan" the event and those begging for structure, at least a list that people could actually touch, to assure them that indeed there would be something to show the audience that night (which ended up including a Village Voice stringer -- more irony). I can't possibly describe what ultimately came about. Mostly because you had to be there. Also because Ed and I had to fly out that day and missed the whole thing.

The Conference wound down without us on Sunday, but talk of the next one is already brewing. Wendy Knox is convinced it should be in Cuba. Well, we could smuggle cigars and pay for it that way. I suggested Tijuana; David Bucci laughed and said, "Oh, yeah, we'd be having some pretty serious discussions about theatre in Tijuana." Actually, we probably would. But there is no telling when, where, or what "the next one" will be, or even if there'll ever be another. As Erik said a while back, "One way that guarantees that we continue to deconstruct and fail in a productive manner is that every time the RAT Conference comes together, it has to be put together on completely new terms."

On the plane back I again pick up the Zen book; a few things have crystallized for me. The attitude of Zen, as it is taught in traditional Zen monasteries, might be summed up like this: Buddha is a nobody; let's all bow to Buddha. Scriptures are bullshit; when the bell rings we chant the scriptures. Meditation is a masochistic superstition with no real value; we meditate for hours every day.

Looking back on a week with RAT, I start looking at the "what we're doing" question this way: Theatre sucks; let's all make more theatre and help each other make even more. Money is the root of all evil; let's share ways to get more money. A life in art requires uncompromising idealism and integrity; a life in art is a giant scam, let us count the ways.... It's never been so hard to do theatre; but look how many of us keep throwing ourselves against that wall, over and over, year in and year out. Maybe that's you too. How do you become a RAT? Erik suggests the "ceremony" look something like this:

"I'm a RAT."

"No, you're not."

"Have a donut."

"Now you're a RAT."