July 4-10, 2001 The Village Voice

Stage Left
RAT Tales

by Trav S.D.

If there were ever a club for Bob Dylan to join, it would be RAT. Everyone in RAT is like the young Dylan of Don't Look Back, comically unwilling to define anything, including RAT. "RAT," for example, may or may not stand for "Regional Alternative Theatres." Playwright Erik Ehn is RAT's leader and founder—only the group is not "led," and since RAT has never been incorporated or even defined by its members, it cannot have been "founded." For the purposes of clarification, let's take the liberty of defining RAT as a loose conglomeration of small art theaters, companies, and performers, in constant communication via the Internet, who meet each year in a different U.S. city to discuss art, politics, business, and life.

True to its ambivalent nature, this year's conference was both a lovefest and a not-lovefest. The very location of the June 21-24 event was an indication of RAT's combative side: It was held in Philadelphia because Theatre Communications Group (the regional theater service organization that publishes American Theatre) was holding its biennial conference there at the very same time. RAT has employed this strategy before: The 1997 conference was held in New York opposite the first NYC International Fringe Festival.

When the Fringe represents the Establishment, you know you are talking about radicals. RAT Nick Fracaro speaks of using RAT's underground militia-like structure of nationwide cells to "surround" and "conquer" mainstream culture. Ehn favors the abolition of money and written contracts (which may have given pause to conference attendee Morgan Jenness, head of the Helen Merrill Ltd. literary agency). While there may be thousands of RATs (as defined by those who sign onto the e-mail-based "RAT List"), perhaps 100 attended, with maybe another 100 popping over from TCG for a special joint workshop. Approximately 700 attended TCG.

What the RATs lack in numbers they make up for in, well, drama. The first workshop, "What the F**k is Diversity?" (featuring playwright Mac Wellman), quickly broke down into a shouting match with walkouts and finger-pointing over the fact that the workshop was not wheelchair accessible. The divisions were immediately healed in the next workshop, "Theatre: The Next Generation," led by a group of Fordham undergrads whose optimism gave the battle-scarred old anarchists a new jolt of positive energy. The emotional seesaw theme continued throughout the conference. While a discussion on "Unions and Guilds," led by Thieves Theatre's Gabriel Schaeffer and featuring Equity rep Carol Wasser, grew tense (Equity rules make it difficult for small not-for-profits to use Equity actors), a writing workshop with Ehn based on the writings of Saint Theresa (with some Merle Haggard thrown in) was, quite literally, a religious experience.

Meanwhile, over at the TCG conference, director Ben Cameron (who has attended two past RAT conferences and frequently monitors the RAT List) galvanized the assembled with talk of greater responsiveness to its smaller, more experimental members (as opposed to the LORT dinosaurs that have been its traditional constituency). The next day Ehn wrapped up the RAT conference with his own summation of the future: It seems RAT may be on the cusp of defining itself . . . or continuing not to define itself.