July 28, 1999 BACK STAGE WEST

RAT Packs 'Em In
by Rob Kendt

People who give a RAT's ass about small alternative theatre gathered this past weekend at the Ivy Substation in Culver City and the Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown L.A. for the fifth annual RAT conference, the first of its kind in L.A. Drawing attendees from small theatres in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Little Rock, and many areas of Southern California, the conference splayed wildly over three-plus days of all-free events, workshops, panel discussions, performances, and free-form schmoozing.

RAT stands variously for Regional Alternative Theatre or Room And Transportation-or, as RAT founder Erik Ehn said in one panel discussion, "It stands for nothing. It's a fake name."

Indeed, RAT is consistently undefined as a non-organization by the often contrarian, self-styled outsider artists who first met around the Off-Broadway run of Mac Wellman's language-based plays Bad Penny, Crowbar, and Terminal Hip, and later coalesced more formally at the University of Iowa in 1995 for the first RAT Conference.

The manifesto of this nascent movement was provided by Ehn, a Bay Area-based playwright who in a 1993 essay in the Yale journal Theatre advanced a well-considered argument against the stasis of institutional regional theatre in the U.S. and in favor of a number of radical but very specific grass-roots alternatives meant to link theatre artists more directly to each other and to their communities.

In practice, the RATs emphasize the movement's lack of a plan and take pride in its disorganization and "inefficiency." The result at last week's L.A. gathering was a kind of ongoing meta-theatrical happening that became its own reason for being-one which organizers Lee Wochner and Mitch Gossett kept appropriately loose and on-the-fly without losing their cool. Rather than a ringing endorsement of a new model or aesthetic, the conference came out with individuals vowing to meet again at next year's RAT conference, to share information and gossip via e-mail, and maybe even work together soon.

The conference's big-drawing panel discussion promised to feature Ben Cameron, executive director of the national organization Theatre Communications Group, alongside Lars Hansen, the new president of Theatre LA, squaring off "against" Ehn and RAT co-conspirator Nick Fracaro of Brooklyn's Thieves Theatre. Moderator and conference co-organizer Lee Wochner admitted to the crowd that the conference's "contentious" billing was a "scam" to get the crown to show up.

What ensued was polite if passionate disagreement on very few points, since Cameron has redefined the mission of TCG from what he calls its original goal of "validating a certain kind of behavior"- i.e., helping U.S. regional theatres define themselves a serious nonprofit institutions in the 1960's and '70s-to "capturing theatrical energy in whatever form it takes," including "irreverence and innovation" outside the institutional LORT model.

Representing the RAT side, Ehn spoke of the culture's "tremendous pressure to go to the marketplace," and worried that institutional theatres want to compete with the slick, efficient distribution of film and TV-a "spiritually dead" path to which the alternative is for like-minded rebels to "find each other," a la the renegades in The Matrix who take on a pervasive mind-control machine, and fight the power and/or claim their own.

The passionate Fracaro called RAT "not quite a religion, but pretty close to a way of life," and compared it to "a van going around the country, or an ark picking up anyone who's on the same search" for "a life in the theatre rather than a career in the theatre." Looking just a mite bewildered by the abstract tone of his panelmates, Theatre LA's Hansen spoke admiringly of the "mutual respect developed over the years between the large and small theatres" in L.A., and spoke hopefully of today's graying theatregoing audience being replenished by aging baby boomers.

As if to supply some of the controversy missing from the panel, audience members were vocal in their concerns about everything from the high salaries of big-money arts administrators to the need for theatre to validate youth culture rather than condescend to it. And while some acknowledge3d hopeful signs for big/small theatre partnerships as well as within LORT theatres themselves, many in smaller theatre clearly see themselves as engaged in a pitched battle between scrappy, grass-roots artists and a professionalized arts racket for a shrinking funding pie.

Ehn's answer-to fight the tyranny of money by embracing pverty, both as a value and an aesthetic-is radical, although he theatre artists of L.A., with their selfless Equity 99-Seat Plan, are already practicing it in their work, and few with better results than such local troupes as Actors' Gang, which gave a phenomenal demonstration of its signature commedia-based style, and Cornerstone Theatre Company, which gave a workshop on its unique community-based work.

Among the free performances offered were "Night of 1,000 Playwrights," in which bits of many plays were sampled over several hours, some after hours of rehearsal, others strictly cold-read; a free reading/performance of Nat Colley's play Lawyers by Moving Arts theatre company; a pair of diverting monologues by members of San Diego's Sledgehammer Theatre, and the "High Cheeze Challeng," a performance contest won by a group which "sunk the LATC like the Titanic" by lying down on the floor of the former bank building as blue balloons were dropped on them.

"It was spectacular," said Mark Seldis of the Actors' Gang, who issued the challenge on Thursday and helped judge the finalists late on Saturday night. About the whole RAT infestation, Seldis raved: "I thought it was pretty amazing, to have people form out of town along with the people from theatres here, as well as this whole slew of individuals who are just interested in theatre and aren't affiliated with any company. There were definitely a lot of doors opened here."

Indeed, while RAT has yet shown nothing close to the scope or impact of the resident theatre movement of the 1960s, to which it is often compared, it does have a similar do-it-yourself breakaway spirit and tenacity, and remains perhaps the most likely laboratory for the next great nonprofit theatre model to brew-even it that model is simply, for the time being, a commitment to get together once a year and talk theatre.