September, 1996 THE STRANGER

The 3 1/2 RAT Conference in Austin, Texas
Diary of a RAT
by Matthew Sweeney

Friday, August 9:

It's fucking hot here. Thank god everything's air conditioned. Get a ride into Austin with Eva, the managing director of Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, a founding RAT theater and one of the conference hosts. The conference started yesterday but she hasn't had much time to check anything out. Too busy with managing director stuff (like driving schmucks like me in from the airport). There are 55 people from 35 theaters (and 20 unaffiliated artists) here, still trying to define what RAT is and what it could be. Born in the feverish mind of feverish playwright Erik Ehn, RAT (it stands for whatever you want-Regional Alternative Theater and Raggedy Ass Theater come up a lot) is an opportunity to find fellow conspirators, maybe collaborators, and to remember that we aren't making art in a vacuum. (Sometimes it seems like our work lives and dies in our tiny black boxes, in parks or bars.) While there are no criteria for membership, there are things that many of the groups have in common: a focus on new work, ensemble based, a dedication to making more with less. Ehn was seeking refuge from the impersonal League of Regional Theaters (LORT) world, and found like-minded compatriots among small ensembles scattered across the country. But increasingly he became concerned with the isolation these companies faced, and the frustration that accompanied it. He became an alternative evangelist, speaking with various theaters across the country, and writing a series of articles for Yale's Theatre magazine. Twenty theaters met at the University of Iowa in 1994 and the RAT Conference was born. Eva and I arrive at the Public Domain, the designated RAT gathering hole, located downtown near most of the conference venues. The first people I see are from Seattle, a fellow Annex cohort I hadn't known was coming and Kristen (blah blah fucking blah) Kosmas, in Austin for the summer performing her solo show slip and collaborating with Ehn and Ruth Margraff at Frontera. Great example of the RAT aesthetic: while it may be commonplace for LORT theaters to bring playwrights in from around the country for collaboration, most smaller theaters assume this sort of exchange out of reach. Not so. We may be poor financially but we're rich spiritually. Beds are offered, plane tickets are scammed, and art is made. The workshops this weekend break down into three basic categories: practical, philosophical, and practical philosophical subversion. Dominick Balletta of New York's Performance Associates talked nuts and bolts; RAT's reluctantly de facto spiritual guru Ehn talked loaves and fishes; and Thieves Theatre cohorts Nick Fracaro and Gaby Schafer went on a search and distort mission on a local billboard with several other RAT's. Another example of the RAT virus spreading and replicating itself. If the people won't come to your art, take your art to the people, whether they like it or not. While the first conference was about what RAT is, and the second (held in Seattle at Annex last August) was about what RAT isn't, this one seemed to be more focused on tangible objectives-lots of phone numbers were swapped, and lots of people's long distance bills will be going up. Kosmas talked about a dream project at an abandoned factory in Buffalo, N.Y. which has folks salivating; several RATS will be converging on Seattle in December to perform at Annex's Lippezanner Caberet; and DREAM PROJECTS? GET MORE. The quote of the day came from Mitch Gossett, artistic director of Bottom's Dream Theater in L.A.: "RAT is a body, not arms and legs. What is theater without LORT or without white corporate money? It's RAT."

Saturday, August 10:

Still fucking hot. Austin in August is a cruel joke that no one from out of town was laughing about after the first day. This morning's workshops include "The Director in Performance," led by former Seattleite Manuel Zarate; "Production on the Cheap," a perennial favorite RAT topic; and a workshop geared towards gathering material for a production with the ominous title "How to Be a Man in the 21st Century." RAT's gone international, and David Chikhladze of Aditi Theatre from the Republic of Georgia was there with "peripheral text drama etudes and wide smell performance." His accent is too thick and the discussion too dense. I leave early. Reports vary. Salvage Vanguard Theater's Jason Neulander has a life changing experience. Annex's James Keene and cute-as-a-button-and-twice-as-talented playwright Ruth Margraff from New York's Tiny Mythic Theater leave underwhelmed. We should be getting back to the work. We seem to be falling into the same trap that caught the Annex conference last year-imposing too much structure on an organization full of people who despise imposed structure. Playwright Karl Gajdusek said, "The workshops seem to pull it apart. As a whole it seems to try to be something it's not. I think we need to keep experimenting with the word conference." He suggests, as do many others, that the next time we gather it should be to work, not to workshop. "If the big questions come up, we should discuss them, but not at a meeting scheduled at 10 am." Tonight it's off to the Electric Lounge to see Salvage Vanguard's Stranger Desire by David Bucci. The Lounge is set up like ReBar, bar on one side, stage on the other-frantic strike by the actors after the show so the crowd can dance. Pleasantly surprised by the show. Generation X take on Streetcar Named Desire. Some great lines, good direction, good acting. Bucci is one of the first RATS to tangibly benefit from the conference. His show Kid Carnivore toured the west coast last year, and after acquiring a script at last year's conference, Washington D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theater, one of the older and fatter RATS, produced the premiere of Bucci's Lynnwood Pharmacy. It had an extended run to sold out houses. After the show it's off to the scheduled Saturday Schmoozefest, a party at the reigning local theater critic's hacienda. A fairly large affair but it seems to peter out quickly, probably due to the heat. Have I mentioned that it's fucking hot? Go to the Austin fag bars, but that's a story for another time.

Sunday, August 11:

Not quite as fucking hot. I finally have a chance to talk to Erik Ehn, who has been invisible for most of the conference. Without discussing it directly, I begin to realize why. Erik's intentionally leaving us to our own devices, removing himself from our constant need for his approval and advice. But I've needed my dose of vitamin Ehnx if you're unaffected by Erik's passion and his poetry you're not cynical, you're dead. "One of our great wounds-the difficulty of integrating our lives as artists with our lives as whatever else-is actually a symptom of our mission," he began. "Theater is not meant to be a constituent part of one's life-rather, it is a way of seeing or behaving; it is an ethic. An ethic is not a business, and the unlimited growth model doesn't serve it. An ethic that builds on itself, that locates itself is prudery; it spoils. An ethic properly infiltrates. Good ethics can be compatible with good livelihood, but ethics can't be handled like goods." One place I disagree with Ehn (and a lot of other RATs) is over the issue of poverty. Most of these groups aren't making a living making their art. As (playwright?) Nick Fracaro said at the second conference, "Having a life in theater and having a career in theater are two different things." The poverty thing is a real sticking point. For many like Ehn, it's a state of grace to be sought out. For others including myself, it's a situation to be tolerated and exploited, not idealized and romanticized. Today's session is a sort of debriefing, closure type of thing. It's the first time since I've arrived that everyone's been in one room. It sucks that it took this long. Lots of hugs, last minute plotting. It's more of a whimper than a bang. A quick ride to the airport and it's over. Once again, the quote of the day comes from Mitch Gossett: "Every time I go to a RAT conference I get new ideas. My theater has grown exponentially. I feel like I'm producing work for a national audience, not just my community." RAT has become a national community, but one that is constantly re-defining itself. There are advantages and disadvantages-as someone who works at a theater that constantly questions its identity and seeks to redefine itself, I'm aware of the amount of energy and frustration that's involved. But sometimes it's the only way to keep from stagnating. The one thing that ties us together is the desire for artistic freedom. And freedom defined is freedom denied.

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