Friday, December 16, 1994 THE SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE

By any name, a new rat pack's in the offing
by Michael Phillips

They're kicking around various names - everything from Regional Alternative Theaters (i.e., the RAT pack), to the Art Workers Hostelry, to, jokingly, the League of Non-Paying Regional Theaters.

But a formal name may never come to pass for what's coming to pass. For months now, Bay Area playwright Erik Ehn has developed notions on how to establish a "national assembly of small theaters," along the lines of the League of Resident Theaters, but smaller, and different. How to create such an entity, make it work for the diverse companies involved, without letting organizational and institutional grief wreck everything?

Two weeks ago, a three-day conference involving a dozen or so alternative theaters - including San Diego's Sledgehammer Theatre and Theater E - brought theater representatives to the University of Iowa's Iowa City campus. Ehn ran a playwrights' workshop there; that segued into the conference, hosting companies ranging in size from Washington D.C.'s acclaimed Woolly Mammoth Theater (operating on $1 million budget) on down to Dallas' terrific Undermain Theater, the Annex Theatre of Seattle, Thieves Theater of Coney Island, the Hillsborough Moving Company of Tampa, Fla., Los Angeles-based Bottom's Dream, Sledgehammer and Theater E, among others.

"The most valuable thing was simply the fact we got together," reports Sledgehammer executive director Ethan Feerst.

"Erik had seen there were people out there doing similar kinds of work, working in isolation, and that it'd he important to try to get them together, initially at least simply to get a look at our counterparts - to share methods of working, strategies, that kind of thing. And then, possibly, to talk about exchanging work, and further down the line, to create something more structured or formal - maybe a 'small' or alternative theater festival.."

Ehn, former literary manager of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, has strong San Diego connections: Sledgehammer produced several of his "Saint Plays" as well as "New" (a '93 highlight). Las spring Sledgehammer presented the work premiere of Ehn's "No Time Like the Present" at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It'll be restaged here by Sledgehammer next year, in a revised version, with music by Pea Hicks and Francis Thumm.

Theater E's co-artistic director Karl Gajdusek credits Ehn's "populist strain" in getting everybody together (and getting the U. of Iowa to pitch in, moneywise). Gajdusek said that a lot of the initial discussion involved "the writers expressing the opinion that they can't get their plays done, and the artistic directors expressing the opinion that they can't find good plays anywhere."

Yet even before the confab, many of the constituent theaters had begun cross-fertilizing. Gajdusek, former technical director of the Annex, recently had his play "The Gilded Garden of Patcheww" staged there. Ehn has had plays produced in Seattle, Dallas, New York and other cities.

"My biggest fear," Gajdusek says, "was that something huge and concrete would come out of it." But it turned out fine, he says; the talk, whether in meeting form on campus or after-meeting form in nearby bars, was loose and helpful.

"Not in a clique-y way," Gajdusek says, "but people recognized there were only certain theaters involved they wanted to share aesthetics with." Beyond that, everyone shared their "scams" (Gajdusek's word), "various ways to operated outside the boundaries of buying everything."

Ideally, without getting institutional in the wrong way, all this could lead to either production exchanges, or (in a more popular notion) a given theater hosting a given visiting director or playwright for a collaborative project. And so: Formally or informally, a new rat pack is born.

Karl Gajdusek's Theater E co-artistic director, Lisa Portes, will be out of town much of '95: Since the La Jolla production of "Tommy," she has served as director Des McAnuff's assistant, and now that "Tommy" is proliferating by way of various international companies (first up: Toronto and Frankfurt), she's associate director. Which means Gajdusek will the Theater E reins, and see where that particular - and particularly valuable - horse takes him.

The '95 schedule is fluid, but the E folks will likely present playwright Naomi Iisuka's "Tattoo Girl," perhaps directed by Allison Narver of Seattle's Annex Theatre. (Portes staged "Tattoo Girl" for the Annex this fall.) Gajdusek, last represented locally in the Fritz Blitz new play festival by the intriguing "Dr.s F.s in the Terminal Ward," is working on a new play, likely to be staged in '95 at a TBA site. No name yet, he says, "but I know the works 'Walpurgisnacht' and 'Malibu' will be in the title."

Fellow E-playwright Iizuka is busy, too.: Her new play about the death of Elizabethan scribe and spy Chistopher Marlowe, "Marlowe's Eye," is currently n rehearsals for its Nada Theater world premiere in Manhattan. Bruce McKenzie, Theater E and Sledgehammer veteran, plays the lead.

And now, the final Theater E item, one for the Playwrights of Tomorrow; Iizuka and Theater E will conduct a playwrighting workshop, limited to 10 students, Information on the eight-week affair (held Tuesday 1-3p.m. at Twiggs Cafe in University Heights) can be had at 239-1869.