Sunday, August 17, 1997 NEW YORK TIMES

In the Terrain That Spawned Rent,' a Morality Play: Who's Fringier Than Thou?
by Jesse McKinley

As survivors of the Off Off Broadway will tell you, about the only thing their scene shares with the Great White Way is gravity. Broadway houses have $75 seats and lots of monied tourists to fill them. Off Off Broadway houses usually "borrow" them back. Working conditions sometimes bring to mind 19th-century sweatshops (long hours, little pay, no water) and the only constants are a shortage of money, a surfeit of obscure titles, and endless bickering about whether theater - their profession is dead.

Still, in recent years, this threadbare scene has produced two bona-fide hits, "Rent" and "Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." These successes, and the more familiar hardships, veterans say, breed a deep camaraderie among those who man the scene's front lines.

So organizers of the city's first Fringe festival, supposedly a celebration of the moxie of alternative theatre, must have been surprised recently when they found themselves in a spitting match with a rival group, R.A.T., which stands for Regional Alternative Theaters.

No one is too sure who started the squabble or even if one of the principal provocateurs really exists, but it quickly gained civil war pitch. Fringe organizers were accused of selling out, R.A.T. organizers of acting "fringier than thou," and both are striding the boards confused. Was it possible? Could the nascent Fringe have already spawned (gulp) an Off-Fringe?

This week, the rift was brought into sharp relief. Two days after Fringe performers began their festival with a parade through the East Village, R.A.T. organizers opened Ratfest(ation), at a theater across town.

Ratfest(ation) is a nine-day gathering at three theaters: HERE, at 145 Avenue of the Americas; the East Fourth Street Theater, at 79 East Fourth Street, and the Ohio Theater, at 66 Wooster Street. The 11-day Fringe festival sprawls over 13 Lower East Side venues.

R.A.T. conference organizers describe their group as a loose collective of representatives from 25 or so small theaters around the country and a handful of independent artists. They are purposefully anarchic, communication almost exclusively via 3-mail and electing no leadership.

Organizers insist there is no one way to become a R.A.T., but most members adhere to a basic credo: to "operate below the radar" of mainstream theaters. "The whole idea behind the R.A.T. is to burrow inside and underneath and scam off the established groups," said Catherine Porter, an artistic director with Peculiar Worlds Project and a confirmed R.A.T. "Basically, we steal stuff from our day jobs."

The heart of the dispute between the two groups was a decision made last fall by Fringe organizers to "jury" their festival, to judge and week out performers they felt weren't right for the event.

For some more rabid R.A.T.s, the notion of a jury system ran contrary to the whole concept of Fringe as a showcase for performers whose work doesn't fit into the mainstream.

A New York R.A.T., Nick Fracaro of Thieves Theater, in Cobble Hill, decided to approach Fringe organizers about his concerns. The artistic director, John Clancy, told Mr. Fracaro that the festival would be happy to offer performance spaces to R.A.T. groups, but that the three-member jury system would remain.

"If we booked the first 170 people who showed up, most of the stuff would be Godawful," Mr. Clancy said. "We need to help the audiences, not insult them."

The debate then moved to the Internet, with a decidedly cattier pitch. Mr. Clancy continued to justify his decision ("What qualifies us to pass judgment? We're really smart.") and R.A.T.s continued to attack him and Fringe. One especially fierce critic is Mary Feast, a shadowy figure who said she has lived in Coney Island and worked with a company known as the Harlequins.

"If you woof at me again, smart boy, I'll practice my theater on you," Ms. Feast wrote to Mr. Clancy on the Internet. "I'll tie on the red bandanna and stalk and haunt your dreams like a succuba."

(Mr. Clancy said he believed Mr. Fracaro was writing the notes and using "Ms. Feast" as a playful festlike pseudonym. Mr. Fracaro denied this and said Ms. Feast was to be on the panel at the R.A.T. conference next Saturday.)

Blame some backbiting on Off Off Broadway's recent commercial success. Downtown theater leaders say "Rend" and "Gross Indecencies" are beckoning established producers to take a second look at smaller, less traditional shows. Suddenly, the stakes are higher.

"The alternative stuff has become acceptable," said Elena K. Holy, producing director of Fringe. "The commercial world is coming down here now."

That said, the R.A.T. festival remains distinctly noncommercial; few performances will be open to the public. The Fringe directors, taking a much different tack, are actively promoting their event, going so far as to appear on Channel 5's "Good Day New York" on Wednesday morning, frolicking with giant robotic puppets.

R.A.T.'s workshops and panels are free; Fringe shows cost $11 each, a price organizers say will cover the festival's $100,000 production cost.

Despite the vitriol, R.A.T.s and Fringers say they have far more in common than their feud suggests. Several R.A.T. companies will present shows at the Fringe festival, and many Fringe performers plan to drop by the R.A.T.'s nightly "Terra Incognita" meeting at K.G.G. Bar on East Fourth Street.

"We're all in the business of trying to make theater in an environment where money is scarce, but we still love doing it," said Kristen Marting, a R.A.T. organizer and co-artistic director of Tiny Mythic Theater Company. "We spend 355 days a year making theater for other people. This is just 10 days for us all of us to make theater for ourselves."


Fringers vs. Rats

Organizers of the New York International Fringe festival and the RAT conference RatFest(ation) share many common traits like very little money and even less, name recognition --but it's their differences that have led to contretemps.


FRINGE Organizers selected 175 shows from 450 entries; traditional plays were frowned on, entries with intriguing titles were popular. RAT Anyone is welcome, but most groups are "operating below radar" of mainstream theater.


FRINGE Accepted performers had to submit a $350 fee to perform. RAT No fee; organizers preach a policy of "voluntary poverty."


FRINGE Overt theater. Festival is a showcase for emerging talent. RAT Covert theater. Conference showcases members' ability to "burrow inside and scam off more established groups."

Typical Programming Highlight

FRINGE "A Clown, A Hammer, A Bomb, and God," based on a true story. At the Connelly Theater, 220 East Fourth Street. RAT "The Plague Workshop," an experimental theater "form" based on the work of Antonin Artaud and the Black Death. At the Ohio Theater, 66 Wooster Street.

The Opposition

FRINGE "They take themselves so seriously."
--Aaron Beall,
executive producer of the Fringe festival
RAT "They're doing McTheater and they think that's fine."
--Nick Fracaro,
Thieves Theatre