July 22, 1999 BACK STAGE WEST

RATs Invade Downtown
Theatre artists convene in L.A. to challenge each other's assumptions
by Laura Weinert

What do RATs do?

"We scurry, we infiltrate, we scam. We see a piece of cheese, we'll wait till the owner's gone, and then we'll steal it. We work below the radar," said Mitchell Gossett, producing artistic director at Bottom's Dream and member of Regional Alternative Theatre (otherwise known as Radical Alternative Theatre, or Room and Transportation), which will have its upcoming conference this week in Los Angeles.

Like most great revolutionary movements, RAT was born of a manifesto. In 1994, San Francisco-based playwright Erik Ehn published an article in the Yale School of Drama literary journal Theatre which compared institutional theatres in the U.S. to a "set of retail outfits" which are "static and sad," which "allow art without causing it." In response to what he saw as a dying model, Ehn proposed a network of small, alternative theatres from across the country which would pull together -- sharing resources, knowledge, and ideas and pursuing a philosophy "of ethics, of assembly, of no money."

Ehn's voice carried. Since the initial conference in 1994 - held in Iowa, with around a dozen people -- the conference has come to be an annual event, including hundreds of theatre artists from across the country. Free and open to all members of the theatrical community, the conference focuses on ways to turn not having money into an advantage, and to foster co-production and collaborations.

"Not having money forces you to be artistically very creative," emphasized Lee Wochner, artistic director of Silverlake's Moving Arts Theatre, who will lead a discussion at this year's conference on "running a theatre without driving yourself crazy."

"Money shouldn't be a psychological issue," said Wochner. "Money is like lumber: You need a certain amount of lumber to build something, and if you don't have it, you go buy it, and if you can't buy it, then you see if somebody will donate the lumber, see if you can trade for the lumber, you cut down trees. There's more than one way to build a church."

A good part of the conference, and a good deal of the dialogue around RAT in general, centers on finding clever ways to use, reuse, or swap resources -- or, as the RATs put it, finding good "scams."

"'Sacm' is about how you get something you need without spending money," explained Gossett. "The most common scam is using your boss' copy machine to make copies of scripts. Then, of course, scams get more complicated and creative."

At each conference, RAT members set aside a discussion about the various scams they've come up with over the past year, which range from collecting a using sheets that hotels throw out each month to a simple exchange between theatres of necessary goods. Thanks to the network they've formed over the past few years, Wochner and Gossett explained that now small L.A. theatres frequently swap everything from fake-pregnancy padding to slide projectors, from ladders to labor.

"We're RATs," said Gossett. "You throw it out, we'll eat it. Your garbage is our resource. We take what we can get. We take what we need."

"It's about creative solutions," explained Wochner, "making creative use of a small space, cheap lighting, sound effects. We know we can't have chandeliers come down, or car crashes and explosions, but our ticket prices aren't 50 or 70 dollars, either."

Poverty creates a certain type of grace," Gossett elaborated. "Erik Ehn is fond of saying, 'Theatre is an ethic,' and money kind of pollutes that. What's the ethic of a $6 million-a-year regional theatre? They're really a business. They're providing a service to a mostly white, subscription-based audience. That's not the world we're producing theatre in, so why should we be subject to that model? Rather than hash over the old model, why don't we try to discover a new one? So many of the problems with the larger institutions are created by money."

"The thing about having a big budget is that then you lose your choice," argued Wochner. "When big theatres do seven plays a year, the7 only pick one they want to do. They had to do six plays that they didn't really feel strongly about just to fund the one, whereas we do what we want to do."

"In a way, we're more free," continued Gossett. "We have what we need -- language, vulnerability, and outrage."

The usefulness of larger institutions will be up for debate at this year's conference, brought to a climax with a panel debate titled "RAT Trap--Large Organization: Helpful or Helpless?," at which founder Erik Ehn and RAT bomb-thrower Nick Fracaro of Brooklyn's Thieves Theatre will face off with Ben Cameron, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, Inc., and Lars Hansen, president and CEO of Theatre LA.

"There are going to be bombs hurled, and I can't wait for that," said Wochner. "I want to be there for the shrapnel."

"We're RATs, after all," added Gossett. "We're not doves."

Other panel discussions will cover such topics as private publishing, marketing, and issues of language. L.A. playwright and former writer-in-residence at the Mark Taper Forum Caridad Svich will also lead a discussion on "how to work within an institution and still be a RAT," a topic which has provoked some controversy among the more radical RATs. Yet Wochner and Gossett admitted that it is a valid concern.

"After all, no one here is telling you that you have to be broke, you can't get support," stressed Gossett. "You can do whatever the heck you want to do. People want to know, 'How do I get health benefits? How do I get a salary that can support my little young family and still keep my vision and integrity, my aesthetic?'"

"There are a lot of disagreements," admitted Wochner. "The main thing is to assess all of your assumptions. Don't assume any of the old assumptions is correct. For example, the idea that growth is good -- growth has destroyed as many theatres as it has launched.

Interspersed with these discussions will be a variety of experimental performances, including the world premiere of an online text collaboration by 13 playwrights from across the country; a webcast production, using live actors on both coasts; "Night of 1,000 Playwrights," featuring snippets of dozens of new plays, and the premiere of L.A. playwright Nat Colley's Lawyers.

Local theatres participating in this year's conference include Actors' Gang, Bottom's Dream, Buffalo Nights Theatre Co., Circle X, Ghost Road Co., Ensemble Studio Theatre West, Moving Arts, Playwrights' Arena, Sacred Fools, Theatre of NOTE, and Zoo District.