RATs Swarm City of Angels
In search of a theatre where less is more and inefficiency is good
by Mark London Williams

Every theatrical event needs a good central metaphor, and for the RAT Conference, held this past July in Los Angeles, the key symbol may have been a river. Not just any tributary, but the L.A. River itself, long since driven into cement channels, its banks given over to freeways. But downtown, in a subbasement of the converted bank building that serves as the Los Angeles Theatre Center - main site of this year's event - there lurks a Plexiglas floorboard, under which the river still runs.

That floor was used for an improvised performance as part of the "High Cheeze Challenge," an on-the-spot collaboration of visiting RAT theatre artists, who this year took the Beckett line "If I don't kill that rat, he'll die" as the given text off which to riff. The location was significant, for if anything sums up the RAT viewpoint, it's the idea of stripping away as much unnecessary structure, and getting as close to that essential flow, as possible.

The movement - its initials given to mean "Regional Alternative Theatre," "Room and Transportation" or, better yet, "Raggedy-Assed Theatres," among various permutations - sprang from playwright Erik Ehn's 1994 manifesto calling for "an anarchic composition of broke theatres… committed to sharing work and ways of working." The RATs have been likened to the theatre's version of punk music or the indie film movement; and if RATs represent the punks, then, until very recently, the network of Theatre Communications Group theatres (to say nothing of Broadway) might have been seen as stand-ins for the overblown, overproduced rock bands that punk was rebelling against. As playwright Caridad Svich, based at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, said in her remarks addressing the very contradictions of her position, there's been a "corporate mentality that has undermined regional theatre in recent years."

Given that paradigm, one of the presumed highlights of this year's rodent roundup - co-producer Lee Wochner, of L.A.'s Moving Arts, pegged the attendance at "more than 300 people at various times" - was the much-ballyhooed assent by TCG executive director Ben Cameron to appear on a Saturday afternoon panel called "RAT Trap - Large Organizations: Helpful or Helpless?"

Cameron was to join Lars Hansen, late of California's Pasadena Playhouse and current president and CEO of Theatre LA, in a charged dialectic, with Ehn and Nick Fracaro, of Brooklyn's Thieves Theatre, anchoring the RAT side. Wochner moderated, but if anybody came expecting Jerry Springer action, or even a stage-themed "Crossfire," they were disappointed. All the panelists found themselves essentially in agreement.

Which doesn't mean it wasn't stimulating: Cameron noted the resident theatre moment was "the RAT of its time," and suggested we need to survey the theatrical world "in terms of field ecology," finding where energies and resources might overlap between "established" outfits and the up-and-comers that constitute RAT. Indeed, a few RAT theatres, like the aforementioned Moving Arts, have now joined TCG, a move that Wochner said would've been "unthinkable" even a year ago.

Fracaro noted that the times called for theatre to be as "dangerous" as, say, Terrence McNally's life-of-Jesus update Corpus Chrisi was perceived to be, observing, "We're here as diletantes most of the time, and if someone isn't saying, 'You'd better get off the fuckin' stage or we'll kill you!", we're not doing our jobs."

Ehn weighed in with some large-hearted observations that expanded his original vision into what might be called a kind of "bodhisattva theatre," inveighing that "we need to find each other on our own terms - we have so little time in the world, and there's so much unbearable pain out there."

RAT theatre - any theatre - "must represent kindness, immediately, without mediation," he went on. "The basis of our excellence is physical mercy, our magazine is printed on our flesh, and our requirement for membership is our inability to organize. I fear theatre being as efficient as movies, as television. I'm interested in exploring a theatre that works very inefficiently."

Inefficient or not, the weekend boasted many high notes, among them Peculiar Works of New York's video-conferenced, bi-coastal premiere Privileged & Confidential (see "Theatrics Out of Thin Air," Sept. '99), about our increasing lack of privacy, Sledgehammer Theatre of San Diego's monologue performances and the snippet-laden "Night of 1,000 Playwrights."

Mitchell Gossett of Culver City's Bottom's Dream, the weekend's co-producer with Wochner, kicked things off Thursday by asking, "Why struggle alone when we can struggle together?" Given Ehn's observation that "even the biggest theatre in the world is still the crappiest capitalistic enterprise," and Cameron's later comments that play-makers of every stripe must "assert the integrity of what we do," Gossett's rhetorical query emerged as the main theme of the conference: We're in an age where all theatres are RAT theatres - whether they realize it or not.

Los Angeles-based playwright Mark London Williams writes for Variety and other publications. See the RATs' webside at http://rat.whirl-i-gig.com for more information on the movement.