FEBRUARY 2003 American Theatre

Reinventing the RATs
Is it possible to discern a specific direction amid the purposeful anarchy?

by Trav S.D.

The alternative theatre collective known as RAT has been around long enough -- about eight years now -- to have experienced a couple different incarnations. The idea began with playwright Erik Ehn's influential "Proposal and Alarum Toward Big Cheap Theatre" in the Yale publication Theater (Volume 24, Number 2, 1993). The article proposed a nationwide "Art Workers' Hostelry" that would facilitate collaboration and communication among constituent experimental theatres. The initial vision was the formation of a fairly conventional non-for-profit a board, a director, a designated staff and a fundraising apparatus. That original vision has yet to be realized.

Instead, when Ehn and colleagues from 20 U.S. theatres met at the University of Iowa a few months after the article appeared, they formed RAT. Driven largely by Ehn's Catholic-socialist convictions, the group resolved to adopt an anarchist, barter-based model, with no leader, no corporation and no existence apart fro those times when members actually met or communicated. Even the name was to have no single definition, "regional alternative theatres" and "raggedy-ass theatres" being among the proffered explanations.

Now, the pendulum swings again. In a recent interview, Ehn announced that over the next year, he intends to study ways to implement his original vision of a hostelry, while still "remaining open to revivifying possibilities of anarchy." According to Ehn, the RATs have unfolded "to one side of some original intentions" -- intentions that included organized exchanges of resources among companies and fundraising for regrants to constituent theatres. Ehn has repeatedly proved himself resistant to the concept of leadership ("I'm a bad organizer," he admits) and the handling of money, opting instead for an "ethic of hospitality" -- meaning exchanges in which local hosts take care of their out-of-town visitors with food, lodging and local transportation. Such exchanges have mostly come into play at the annual RAT conference, which features workshops, panel discussions, performances and moderated forums in a different city every year. The RATs are not driven from the top; the confederation depends entirely on its members pulling their own weight when the mood strikes them.

A turning pint came at the most recent RAT conference, held at the University of San Francisco in October. The announced theme was "Change the Space: Looking at Where and How Art Happens in Response to the Needs of Social Justice." RATs from all over the U.S. invaded the churches and meeting halls of USF's old Jesuit campus, playing host to alternative-theatre representatives from Canada, Peru, Nigeria, Australia, Yugoslavia, Uganda, Argentina, Nepal and Ireland. For three days, presenters discussed the challenges of living and making art in a repressive police state. Out of the enthusiasm of the conference came a resolution to hold the next RAT meeting (scheduled for August 2003) in Rosario, Argentina. Previous mini-conferences have been held in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, and Tijuana, Mexico, but this would be the first major conference attempted so far away.

It was immediately apparent that this choice of venue came with a set of problems. After all, hundreds of RATs couldn't even make it to San Francisco -- how could they ever get to South America? Chat on the internet RAT list dealt with possible solutions: cheap airfares, frequent flyer miles and, ultimately, an option that Ehn had been confronting and discounting again and again over the past eight years: fundraising.

Gabriele Schafer of Thieves Theatre in Brooklyn, a principal RAT since the 1994 founding, was among those in San Francisco who voiced a desire to elaborate on the model: "I want RAT to stay what it is -- scrappy, grassroots, anarchic, unbureaucratized, unowned. And yet, when I see what a little money can do, I also get these urges to raise funds so that we can optimize attendance and resources."

As someone who prefers barter to money as a medium of exchange, such questions pose a dilemma for Ehn. "When resources like tickets, or the money to get them, need to be gathered," he asks, "do we pull in resources in a decentralized way [meaning that everybody is on their own, as the RATs operate now], in a broad and centralized way [meaning each RAT gets an equal share] or in a narrow and centralized way [meaning a few strategically chosen RATs get support]?"

Yet Ehn concedes the need to do something. "This cat keeps crossing my path," he says with typical poeticism, "and I've got to step up to the misdirection that fortune offers." His plan is to study ways to organize without giving in to a market-based solution. He proposes a "meta-business" model and promises to achieve the establishment of an Art Workers' Hostelry" by St. Lucy's Day, 2003.

The birthday of St. Lucy, the bringer of light, is Dec. 13. Legend has it that when a suitor admired Lucy's beautiful eyes, she cut them out and sent them to him asking to be left in peace. Once can't help but ponder the symbolism of Ehn's timetable.