Conference of Rats
An Assembly, a Network, a Movement,
an Argument, a Rave, a Celebration

by Mary DeDanan

I walk in on a collaboration in progress. It's a sunny Friday afternoon in a bright yellow kitchen crowded with copper pots and tchotchkes, a refrigerator covered with photos of family, friends, and stage productions. Allison lives here. She, Erik, and Chris sit on stools sipping potent coffee (this is Seattle, after all). They brainstorm a new musical.

"It's site specific," says Erik, "and the site is all of America."

The kitchen collaborators are Erik Ehn, avant garde playwright, original instigator and philosophical mage of the Rat Conference; Allison Narver, also an early Rat organizer and artistic director of Seattle's Annex Theatre (a post she will hold for another five days, after which she will disappear into the maw of Yale's MFA directing program); and Chris Jeffries, local playwright and composer with an enviable number of successful new musicals on his vitae.

The storyline flirts with ancient goddesses in tap shoes, while the practicalities focus on trains. The musical-to-be will travel from small theater to small theater, interactively changing in each town. Ordinary stamped mail and whistlestop marketing, painted props and traveling bands, sleeping bags, sofas loaned for the night and boxes of pizza: it's a vision that relies on personal interaction and creative delights.

Will this traveling extravaganza ever sing and dance its way into your burg? Maybe. Maybe not. More to the point is that this is the Rat Conference in miniature. The gathering itself has yet to begin, but already, as we toast old bread heels to go with our coffee and dig out the last of the butter from Allison's fridge, as laughter and ideas pop like campfire sparks on a summer's night, the basic Rat operating principles are at work: the concept is big, imaginative art, produced on a tiny cheap-o budget that relies heavily on hospitality, barter, and grace. The audience is assumed to be part of the collaboration. The show itself is imagined less as a goal than a process. The whole thing is the essence of rat-ness.

It's late August. The kitchen glows with this impromptu ceremony of theatrical faith, a simple working of inventiveness, anticipation, and caffeine. We are here for the Rat Conference---an assembly, an exchange, a network, a movement, an argument, a rave, a celebration---theatremakers with little to no money and immoderate visions.

We brush off the bread crumbs and pile into Allison's car, rolling down hills and slipping around tight corners, down to the Annex Theatre for the opening session. The Rat Conference. We're ready.

On Sneaky Little Furry Feet

Truth is, Ehn suggested names with considerable more poetry when he first called for a network of "below radar" theatre artists and operators on the pages of Yale's Theater magazine in late '93. As the idea caught on, several working titles were tossed around, cheerfully and interchangeably, from "Art Workers' Hostelry" to "Big Cheap Theater" to "Assembly of the Wondrous Head" to "A Vaudeville of Cheap Theaters." In fact, at the first national meeting at the University of Iowa in December of '94, the 20 or so theatre artists who showed up resolved not to name themselves at all.

But in the eight months since, the name "Rat Conference" has stuck, referring not to a single event, but to a totem-esque state of being. Alternative theatremakers across the nation easily identified with the image of the rat: wily, indestructible, pestilent, squeezing through impossibly tight places, sneaking into the xerox room at the day job, using up all the toner, then sneaking out. The rat doesn't seek to change or reform the dominant structures and forms, but to infest them. And too, R.A.T. lends itself to plentiful acronyms, including Regional Alternative Theatres, Raggedy-Assed Theatres and/or Rogues in American Typecasting (mix and match your own).

Names aside, it's the ideals of the Rat Conference that have caught the fancy of small theatre companies and independent artists. While there is no Rat manifesto, no single party line, there are a number of principles held more or less in common---or at least discussed a lot.

For instance, radical rats hold to the notion that theatre need not be a commodity to be produced and sold retail. Instead, theatre is an ethic, a human value, a habit of seeing, behaving and interacting with the world, a way of treating people and spaces---even a kind of morality. Theatre is more than entertainment, more than education. Theatre is spirituality (not to be confused with humorless, self-important dogma).

Another extreme idea: Small is a good thing to be. Expectations of unlimited growth are outmoded and dangerous. "The new model of growth," said Narver, "is doing less." Rats are resolved to stay small, alternative, decentralized, fully in and of their communities. "Growth is an assumption," said Ehn, "it's not a necessity. A function of the conference is to question every single assumption."

Or try this on: extraordinary, heart-catching theatre has nothing to do with money. Spiritual poverty is a powerful force for innovation because it allows a clear, empty space within: both the wellspring and staging ground of art. Celebrating cheapness allows/requires theatre artists to tap their true tools: "outrage, language and vulnerability," as Ehn put it.

Note that the concept is about spiritual poverty, a deliberate choice of grace over materiality, not chronic destitution, an inability to pay the rent and fill the stomach. This leads to the question of how does one make a living doing theatre in the Rat mode? Often one doesn't---or does so very creatively. As Nick Fracaro (Thieves Theatre, Coney Island, USA) said, with some frustration, "A life in theater and a career in theater are whole different things."

Embracing Brokeness

Is theatre without money possible? Ask that of a typical Rat and she might say, "Honey, if you don't think so, you've been employed at a LORT too long." Theatre without money reinstates the human element in basic transactions. A good part of the Rat discourse centers on hospitality and barter, ancient cornerstones of human interaction.

For artists active in the Rat network, hospitality and barter meet in the concept of Rat banking, the pass code of which might be "giving is as valuable as what you get back." Sample "currencies" are pooled labor, leads on good scams and freebies, recycled equipment and costumes, in-kind donations, shared resources and information. "It isn't that we exchange models," said Ehn. "I haven't pitched money out the window. I believe it has a use." But whether with bumper-crop prop tomatoes or ten ways to make dirt-cheap, sophisticated lighting systems, the idea is to circumvent capital as much as possible, and so avoid the chronic dependency on cash that often shortchanges the art.

If the foundation of Rat banking is helping each other with materiel, information and services, the overlay is swapping ways of making theatre. "We can find ways of giving things to one another that absolutely require a sacrifice on the part of the giver and the taker," said Ehn, "which goes to issues of ownership. When I give you my play, I give up ownership of that play. When you give a production of that play to someone else, I own it even less, until finally I'm thankfully stranger to my own play and I can see it again. Theater is most itself when it's appropriated, most exciting when it's deforming something or reforming something. We need to learn how to appropriate from each other, not just share information. That's what makes this better than e-mail."

The emphasis in the Rat credo is on principles and tactics. An artist's aesthetic is presumed to be as personal as his or her underwear. But one overarching aesthetic ideal---Big Cheap Theatre---comes up again and again, even from independents doing one-person shows. Big refers to an expansiveness of imagination, to pushing boundaries and including larger communities, to broad geographies and new audiences, to multi-disciplinary work, to sharing power in the rehearsal process, to daring. As for cheap, well, you got the picture. As Katherine Owens (Undermain Theatre, Dallas) put it, "Big means possible, cheap means unpreventable."

Finally, consider the distinctive fact that the Rat Conference is a non-organization. As far as a structure exists, it's egalitarian and anarchic. Rats are self-selecting, and all are equal partners. Steve Cosson (Smart Mouth Theater, San Francisco) described it this way: "There's no way to be a member or nonmember. If you want to be there, you're a member." There are no officers, no dues, no board, no 501c3, no logo. "The world doesn't need another institution," said Narver. "The world does need a group of people who know how to talk to each other." More than anything, the Rat Conference is a movement.

These ideas, with all their permutations, varied understandings and occasional misunderstandings, have been expounded on in a couple of theatre articles, fleetingly flashed through the Internet, and buzzed over by the curious and the committed in coffeehouses and small theatres nationwide. Thus when the handful of early Rats announced a second conference in Seattle, theatremakers from scattered parts of the country came to be part. Numbers varied throughout the weekend, but a fair guess puts 130 people as part of the conference at one time or another, including 24 theatre groups, plenty of independents, lots of Seattlites, and dozens of gracious Annex hosts (aptly demonstrating hospitality in action).

Expounded, Flashed, Buzzed

The Annex occupies the top floor of an older downtown retail building, above the local Harley-Davidson shop---a decent neighborhood that encourages good audiences. It's a shoestring company, "a highly functioning collective" (Ehn) and/or "an aggressive democracy" (Narver), with a lively production schedule (a mere 14 shows a year, down from 22), and a company of 110 people (believe it).

What a conference site! A lobby filled with years of Annex posters; a black-painted mainstage bright with pseudo-Victorian scenery for Jeffries's neo-burlesque musical, I See London, I See France; an elegantly gold- and coral-colored gallery with a concessions bar and life-sized canvases of women in quaintly teasing poses; a tiny rooftop garden in back, roses in bloom, instantly commandeered by the smokers.

On Friday's early summer evening, just-arrived conferees mingled in the lobby, checked in with the Annex welcome wagon gals, wrote their names on over-sized baggage tags, shook hands, put faces to names. Most were strangers to each other, but there was an instant feeling of camaraderie; people were excited, chatty, cool. Many were in their 20s or early 30s, with an encouraging sprinkle of gray-haired veterans with chic wrinkles. For the opening session, about 70 Rat conferees settled in a circle around the mainstage to speak, roundtable-style, of who they a re, how they see their work, and the thrills and problems of being small-time operators.

What are those problems and concerns? Some are ancient, chronic, recognizable to every theatremaker in America. Some are new, emerging with the changing times. Some are idiosyncratic, some universal. Many issues came up again and again throughout the conference, restated in terms of personal experience, like endless ghosts of Christmas Carols past. (Carol, that easy mark, was oft invoked at this gathering.) Most often heard:

  • Burnout.
  • Isolation.
  • Marginalization.
  • Changing the art form itself.
  • Political Context.
  • Community.
  • Audience.

Cosson easily summed up burnout: "Every experience is very positive, but I feel like I'm going to die at the end of it." Conferees applauded.

Mark Lutwak (Rain City Projects, Seattle) put it in terms of theatremakers who hit the wall, or worse, push on when passion has fled. "Generally they hit about 5 years and they go under---they burn out---or they find a way to institutionalized themselves. But inevitably, when they become a professional theatre, instead of doing 10 shows a year, they have to do 5 shows a year, and one of them is Christmas Carol, two of them are A.R. Gurney plays, and one of them is a one-man show, and maybe they can do one new play a year and it's directed by the artistic director. It ceases to have the kind of spiritual democracy that the theatre once had. All the reasons people do the work get swept under the rug." His interest was in "seeing how groups have successfully stayed small without getting mean." Models and ideas for getting smaller remained a leit motif for the gathering.

Several hoped to find new survival tactics. While magic bullets were scarce, Karl Gajdusek (Theater E, San Diego) noted that survival is more the accounting. "It's really good just to look at each other. That's a huge survival mechanism. Finding ways in which you spend time together, going to Disneyland, is really healthy."

K. Ruby (Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, San Francisco) observed the sense of support she felt from "being in a room full of other 'survivors.' All of the people in this room are making art against all odds. That's an inspiration." She put survival questions in a larger context of marginalization: "How do we exist in a corporate world? How do we keep going with our visions?"

Said Mitchell Gossett (Bottom's Dream, Los Angeles), "We slip into the empty spaces."

Some felt the malaise that Margery Segal (Nerve Dance Company, Austin) touched on. "I feel I need to do something so I don't get depressed."

"It's really easy to think that you're alone," agreed Narver.

Many were concerned with the current political maelstrom. "Do we go underground, literally underground," asked independent Susan Fenichell, "or do we seize the flag from the Right?" Gerry Stropnicky (Bloomsberg Theatre Ensemble, Pennsylvania) said, "Theatre is political by its existence. We have a patriot's responsibility to survive."

But in the midst of our angst, some concerns were refreshingly basic. Said D.J. Hamilton (Theatre Babylon, Seattle), "I'm tremendously looking forward to the day when the performance space and my home are not the same thing."

With 70-some people, the opening session was long. Those of us sitting in folding chairs found our backs getting stiff. A little of the bounciness wore off. Folks riffed off earlier remarks, jumped from point to point. Somehow the discussion kept a certain coherence. We listened. We laughed or sighed in recognition. We passed around a big basket of candy, a mid-session birthday surprise delivered to Stropnicky from his family. We stayed focused. We came at last to the end, hurried along by a reminder that there would be a show on this stage in less than an hour and the actors needed to warm up.

As a quick wrap-up, Ehn focused on the need for transition for theatre as a whole. He articulated the tension between growing smaller without losing out, and growing larger without losing heart. He spoke of why it is we do theatre---the ever-fresh question---and the nature of what it is to do theatre at this time in history. He compared our times to the cultural tidal wave that hit an unsuspecting pop music industry in the mid-'60s, when the Beatles first came on the scene: "The plane is landing and all the crooners are going to be out of a job."

Rehearsing a Variety of Discourse

We zipped down to the theatre Saturday morning, Ehn (up since dawn and already washed towers of dishes from last night's pizza party), Narver (who was driving remarkably well for someone who just woke up) and I. Ehn grabbed an agenda off me and the two of them, co-moderators for the morning session, figured out what they were going to say. The topic for the group: "What We Want and Need Rat to Be."

"We can't go around the table," said Narver.

"No, gotta be a discussion," said Ehn. He scanned the agenda, reading it to Narver. It's a day of concurrent workshops, Jeffries's show in the evening, and a big party after. "It's such a long day!" he said. "Way too long."

"I'm happy to cut anything," said Narver.

But in the end nothing was cut. The morning session was lively and articulate, expanding on the territory of the previous night and adding many colorful new threads: what are the bonds between us, how is theatre an expression of ethics, the trick of staying small, finding our ecological niche in the audience/artist relationship, letting things die their natural deaths, Rat diversity or the lack thereof, how we learn from our failures (such a hot item that we clamored to devote an entire session to it later). The workshops were meant to be concentrated information sharing, and they went on all afternoon. Financial management for the raggedy-assed theatre, script self-publishing, audience development and guerrilla marketing, touring, communications, models for growth, site-specific work, a hands-on "theater of the oppressed." The seminars were intended to be practical, and most were---but Rats are an analytic bunch.

I wandered into the site specific workshop, half-way through. Faces here were skeptical. Those talking had left the practical long ago and were well into the aesthetic stratosphere. A small sample: Is site specific work meant to increase focus or to have an element of circus? We should, someone said, take locations that are ordinary and invest them with meaning. Couldn't we do that by altering our own theaters, making them new? But when the fourth wall disappears, another law of physics comes into play. Ah, but the experience of the site can overwhelm the play. What then is the character of the theatrical event?

It was now early Saturday evening and people were getting tired. Half a dozen Annex members lay in the hallway, half-listening to bits of the talk, limbs entwined affectionately like puppies. I was a little cranky myself; the discussion sounded increasingly self-congratulatory to me, nor, it seems, was I alone. "This conversation's become so esoteric I don't think I can follow it any more," said Jason Neulander. The guy wanted tangible and who could blame him? Earlier this summer Salvage Vanguard, his cheeky upstart company from Austin, Texas, had toured the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle, hosted by fellow Rats, gathering favorable reviews like sugarplums---one of the first fruits from the Iowa Rat Conference eight months before.

Ehn stayed with it, contributing humor, ever patient, helping the facilitators focus the talk, managing to validate all the diverging view points. At the end he noted, "We've been rehearsing a variety of discourse. Not each experiment is going to be successful." Howard Shalwitz (Woolly Mammoth, Washington D.C.) also took a philosophical view. "All of us are here because we're looking for new ways of engagement."

One Anarch to Go, Please, Hold the Mayo

For those who hadn't had enough, dinner was announced for a local laundromat/sandwich hangout. Designated subject for discussion: anarchy---defined as taking out the mediator and focusing on direct experience---and how it might work in a Rat context. Ruby and Ehn had put this one out, and eventually about 15 people were there. It was a smoky, noisy cafe with, yes indeed, people fluffing and drying their laundry on the flush side of the place.

Ruby was very sincere, talking about anarchy as taking self-responsibility (although possibly she had something more along the lines of feminist consensus process in mind). Fracaro, who described himself as a true anarch, dominated the conversation without listening much---anarchy in action. Isabel Sadurni, Lauren Elder (both independents from the Bay Area) and Christine Murdock (Road Company, Tennessee) broke off to discuss the process of discussion, and half the diners joined in. The procedure we'd been using in the large groups, we decided, where the moderator took names of each person who wished to speak and called on them in turn, allowed everyone a voice, but lacked a certain continuity and spontaneity. In opposition was the dialogue approach, seen at a number of the workshops, where spontaneity reigned, and the loudest had the most fun. Once again, Ruby and Fracaro were at odds, and Ehn had the knack of validating all. Since anarchy didn't seem to be going all that well, talk veered to the just-concluded Alternate Roots conference, which Murdock had participated in. Shalwitz, Neulander, Gajdusek and Gossett huddled at a corner table, possibly intent on a new collaboration. Murdock shared the last of her home fries with me. Hospitality in action.

With Black Lights and Twirling Sparkle Ball

It was a groggy Sunday morning, with considerably fewer people at starting time. No crumbly, delectable pastries or fresh coffee waited for us this morning. Perhaps the Annex welcome wagon gals had had enough and packed it in. "Great party," people greeted each other, trying not to mumble. Black lights were still on from the midnight mainstage disco dancing, and the sparkle ball still twirled slowly overhead. Harsh stage work lights accentuated baggy eyes. Folks wandered in late, 7-11 coffee in hand.

Co-moderators Narver and Ehn ran through an agenda changed and adapted to reflect people's desires. Instead of breaking down into small workshops, we stayed in one big group the rest of the day. We kept the deliberation of big cheap aesthetics and big cheap how-to's (lights, props, sets), added time for sharing our favorite scams, and segued into confessing big, and often expensive, failures.

Failure is a fascinating thing, people agreed. Still, at first folks were philosophical, discreet and just a little shy, focusing on the lessons of failure. But Gajdusek wanted the dirt---what really happened---and many were happy to comply. The fundraiser that lost thousands. The sure-thing hit-show extension in the nation's capital that coincided with the outbreak of the Gulf War. The challenging and intellectual holiday alternative to A Christmas Carol that bombed (moral: don't mess with Christmas). The dissed actor's revenge. Ah, we can laugh about it now.

The final wrap up started easily enough. Logistics, contact sheets, web site on the Internet, talk of a new works festival in new Mexico, loose plans for Rat Conferences/adventures in Vermont, Las Vegas, Denmark, Minnesota's Mall of America. "It's a matter of individuals taking responsibility for any next step," said Ehn. "What's next and who wants to do it?" "Every person in this room is a leader of the Rat Conference," said Narver.

Gradually, and naturally enough, conferees started to talk about forming committees, contributing dues and expenses, a logo. Some remembered earlier notions of resolutions they had desired to be passed. One gent offered to start grantwriting.

But among long-time Rats, the idea of such standard organizational frippery was downright abhorrent. "I think there is something ephemeral, valuable and productive about keeping a financial exchange out of this equation," said Mike Shapiro (Annex) gently. "The longer we can avoid organizing along those lines, the longer industriously, fruitfully Rat-like we can be."

Ehn concurred. "There is no Rat piggybank. To centralize it, we'd need to elect a treasurer, and that implies a kind a structure, and a kind of growth model, that I think might be premature. 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."

Added Lutwak, "There's no sense of consensus about an organizational structure should be except that we're all wary of it."

Gossett put it more forcefully, "It's as though [some of us] are heading toward the TCG of the year 2005. The last time we met, we knew we were Rats but we didn't even want to use the word, because we didn't want people to know we existed. I feel we're going to leave here and start this ego thing, like we're important. I reject this organization. I piss on this organization. I don't want to be TCG, I don't want to be an organization, and I don't want to be a part of one. The day there are any funds collected in a safe will be the last day I participate."

Well, that started a small ruckus. "No one handed me the tenets of the organizations when I came in," said one, "and if you're afraid of someone new coming in and challenging it, then I piss on you. Because that's stagnation."

But most people cheered these arguments as healthy. "If somebody comes in new," said Fracaro, "you have to catch up."

Ehn's final windup addressed the drive to be unstructured and deconstructed while still being ourselves. The trick, he said, is to "be who we are in each other's company." He likes to say things like that. As the Rats filed out and lingered in the lobby, hugs, goodbyes and a shared sense of exhileration and exhaustion smoothed over any hurt feelings---except, perhaps, for the guy who offered to grant write, who really seemed at a loss.

Always Renaming Itself

Later, on the phone, Ehn and I debriefed. He was delighted, overall. The Rat Conference, he said, "was not a serum, but the petri dish, years before the serum is figured out. So there are little blossoms of fungus and bacteria in this petri dish. It'll take a lot of processing to turn it into something."

He cheered on the arguments that marked the close of the conference. "Already we've got, within a very short time, the bones of an organization and the self-critique of that organization. Both are new enough that they both retain equal status."

He imagined that eventually there in fact would be a structure to the Rat Conference, as well as a smaller subset that existed without structure. "We wouldn't want to trade one for the other---you got to have both going on simultaneously. There is a version of Rat which I think will have some kind of committee, which will have a logo. I don't know if it will ever have 501c3; I don't know that it will be a service provider so much as an event and a procedure. It'll live on the idea of Rat banking, and barter, and big cheapness. But it will have some kind of identity. That's important too, because one of the positive functions of our getting together is the ability to represent ourselves to a larger community. It's not just about theater artists communicating to theater artists. It's about theater artists representing their work to their audiences, as part of a national phenomena. So you'll have the logo 'The Rat Conference,' and then you'll have an aspect of a shadow organization within it, that will always be logo-free and completely unnamed, always renaming itself. "

"It would be very disappointing if there were not a schism within," he said. "If there weren't that schism, it would imply that people were uninvolved. You are not investing yourself if you find yourself in harmonious agreement with everyone around you."

He added the cincher: "We have to remain effective critics of ourselves."

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