April, 1995 CALLBOARD

A Vaudeville of Cheap Theaters
Local Playwright Erik Ehn Starts New National Network
by Mary DeDanan

Erik Ehn has a mischief to him. There's something about his eyes that contrasts with his face and his soft, unpretentious style, something that whispers, "look out." For underneath his simple demeanor is a fast wit and a complex understanding of the theater. He's a nationally known playwright of immoderate imagination. He's a practicing socialist Catholic. He's a radical in puppy dog's clothing. And he's really up to something now.

Last year in Yale's Theater magazine, Ehn tickled a sensitive national nerve. He wrote an article that first compared institutional theaters to "a set of retail outfits" more concerned with marketing and self-continuation than creation of new work. He critiqued "large theaters that have lost grip of their spirits," institutions that "allow art, without causing it. They are liberal, static, and sad." He then went on to focus on theatermakers who choose to work on the outside, "under radar, below the market[those that] have crisis, not continuance, built into their missions. They can stop, and they can move ahead."

Ehn proposed a network of small experimental theaters across America brought together under a banner "of ethics, of assembly, of no-money." The structure would be built on consensus, and sought a playful sense of serious anarchy, rather than the usual hierarchy. He envisioned a framework for independent groups to come out of isolation and share the struggle of theatermaking. He suggested ways to connect theater artists to their colleagues in other parts of the nation, to share resources, exchange teams of artists, encourage collaborations, and mount co-productions. Equally important, he proposed a philosophy for seeing the lack of money as liberating: spiritually, politically, and artistically, for "exploring broke-ness as a value--a freedom, a witness."

A network seems obvious, but in fact has never been done before. Folks took him up on the challenge. The Theater article generated letters, phone calls, and small meetings across the map. Last December, avant garde theater artists gathered at the University of Iowa to meet face to face, discuss ideas, argue, tell bad jokes, strategize, share food, share something of their art and aesthetics, and go bowling. Together, they kicked off a new and already active national organization of the avant garde. Ehn sees the bonding, more than the network itself, as the essential event. "It was formed because it was already happening. It's a matter of giving the current movement and trends an identity, rather than imposing or directing something. It's more anarchic at root. It's giving a bunch of people the t-shirt that precipitates a sense of identity."

The artists involved are not looking for a new organizational model so much as "organizing by a way of behaving," says Ehn. "The watchword is hospitality." He expanded on the admittedly unusual view of how the network, and theater itself, might be made. "We're going under the premise that theater is an ethic. And it's a loaded word these days, but theater is a kind of morality. It's a way of treating people and spaces. It's elementally courteous. Theater sometimes does you the courtesy of criticizing or offending, but essentially it's about preparing places for each other. As an ethic, theater is inappropriately organized and marketed. Organization and marketing should be by-products of the theatrical ethic, they should reflect the ethic. But they shouldn't be the sine qua non of the ethic. You can't proceed under the assumption that without organization or without funding, I can't do theater. It's like says that without organization or without structure, I can't respect someone, or I can't love someone. 'I'm not doing work in the theater because I don't have my building and I don't have my board of directors and I don't have my staff.' That's a fallacy."

There is no name for this network yet, and, true to form, there may not be. "We came out of the meeting with a resolve not to name ourselves," says Ehn. Instead, any of the working titles may be used: "Big Cheap Theater" (as much an aesthetic as a name), "Art Worker's Hostelry" (from plans to trade creative teams), or "The Assembly of the Wondrous Head" (a model of magical camaraderie from Celtic mythology). Ehn himself fondly calls it "a vaudeville of cheap theaters," but the name that has stuck most is "The Rat Conference" (totem-esque, from that animal's ability to be "wily and indestructible and everywhere and eternal.")

Whatever it's called, the network organizers have been finding enthusiasm, support, and new colleagues from the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters. So far the network has attracted an impressive list of theatermakers, including Intersection in San Francisco, Undermain in Dallas, Annex in Seattle, Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., Thieves Theatre in Brooklyn, 10,000 Things in Minneapolis, Hillsborough Moving Co. in Florida, and the venerable Living Theatre. "Theaters who like to work ambitiously on limited funds constitute the principal part of the membership," says Ehn, adding, "membership probably is a dangerous word, even. It's an idea around which people have collected."

It is precisely this fellowship that Ehn is aiming at. "The goal that can't be denied us is knowing who we are," he says. "Each other's company is the greatest reward that we can get out of this. A lot of the real driven fringe work out there dies on the vine, not because it's not good work, or even not because it's underfunded, but just because the workers lose heart. In the ability of art to make a difference. In the ability to make a sound and have it heard. Heart, I think, is a cultural donation. For the culture of the fringe to form in this county, it's got to have geographic breadth."

It is a serious challenge to make artistic community and collaboration stretch across miles. "It's the inherent problem of our country, and that's why we're in such dire cultural straits," says Ehn. "Our country is shaped and organized in a way that we have trouble knowing ourselves. Where do the cultures meet? What's the imagination of America's geography?" If there is any one problem that the network seeks to "solve," he says, "it's how to reduce the size of the country in some sense." Ehn notes that the population of "the Bay Area is like a million and a half, and it can barely support alternative theater. There's a handful, and they're hurting. We have to see our community as much larger. Our community includes many millions of people, in terms of potential audience. One place can't do it."

While there is agreement on artistic and community values, not all the theatermakers involved share Ehn view on the "merits of voluntary poverty, in Dorothy Day's sense, in Tolstoy's sense." He says, "I think all of us in the group have in common the idea that theater has a natural value for society. It goes beyond entertainment, or even education. It has a spiritual value to its community. That's shared. The tactic of representing the [community] service component, there's probably substantial disagreement about. But having good arguments is part of the whole thing." Ehn stressed that "I'm definitely speaking as an individual when I get off on this poverty track. People want to live and eat. People want to have families. It's a conundrum. But the idea is never to sacrifice art for the sake of stability."

Ehn notes that nearly all the artists at the conference worked in theater at enormous personal monetary sacrifice. "Like rock and roll stars, they may not expect to do it forever. But when they do it, they want to do it for the passion of it." Ehn admits that the toll on theatermakers may be hard. "People don't want to burn out. But perhaps theaters have a shelf life, especially these fragile theaters. And if you want to continue working in a fragile way, if you want to husband your fragility and work out of it, then you might have to work under the assumption that you're not going to be around forever. You don't have to carve it in granite."

The American Dream of starting a theater, procuring money, having a building, and becoming stable is not necessarily to be discouraged, says Ehn. "But it's not the only way to do it. The mortar of the institution can be intangible. The mortar can community. The building can be personalities rather than a physical structure."

Many of the theatermakers in the Rats Conference have worked at the nation's big institutional theaters. Ehn himself was literary manager at the Berkeley Rep for two years. But the movement toward an ethic of smallness doesn't seem to be a reaction so much as a return to the heart. "If it were reactionary, it would probably resemble what it opposes more. I think it's more a recognition. So you end up with an alternative or an addition rather than a critique. We don't intend to come out with a manifesto and we don't intend to correct anything. We're purely interested in discovering and liberating our artistic impulses."

Ehn pushed up his sleeves, metaphorically. "However it's defined, through history there's always going to be a fringe, or something that's out of the mainstream. It will always be more fragile, always be harder to maintain. It's just its niche. It's in the nature of the work.

"We're not banded together in an effort to reproach, reprove, and then reform the center. The center can take care of itself. We just want to help each other out. We don't want to become immortal or institutionalized, but we do want our ideas to come to term before they die. We accept our mortality. We don't want to die prematurely."

At this point, membership in the network is basically open, says Ehn. A second "Rats Conference" is scheduled for June in Seattle. "We'll see who shows." In the works already are a number of collaborations, and several possible projects such as publishing a manual of avant garde theatermaking techniques, recording an album of songs from new plays from around the country, a video library and exchange, and a festival of fringe work in New Mexico.

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