October 11, 2002 The Village Voice

Stage Left
The Rat Pack Hits Frisco

by Trav S.D.

"Business has beaten art to globalization," says Erik Ehn, founder of the notoriously intractable alternative theater cooperative known as RAT. At the eighth annual RAT conference—sponsored by the University of San Francisco, October 3 though 6—Ehn and the 50 or so other participants seemed determined to even the score. Representatives of theaters from a dozen nations were present, seemingly in partial fulfillment of performance artist Richard Kammler's dream project that would put an artist from each of the United Nations's 191 constituent countries in seats next to their delegates.

At times the RAT conference itself seemed close to being such an assemblage. A panel called "The Land Mass Mission" brought together representatives of theaters from each of the six populated continents to discuss their work. "We tried to invite someone from Antarctica," Ehn joked, "but she was seeking a silent, white place to do her work in." Instead, conferees contented themselves with presenters from Nepal, Peru, Nigeria, Australia, Yugoslavia, and the Lakota Nation. Other presentations at the conference spotlighted groups from Uganda, Argentina, and Northern Ireland. While the purported theme of this year's RAT meet was "Change the Space: Looking at Where and How Art Happens in Response to the Needs of Justice," the conference seemed more a culmination and elaboration of two conferences held in 2000: "Theatre and War" (Iowa City) and "Theatre and Peace" (Novi Sad, Yugoslavia). What each of the presenting nations had in common this year—and what they chose to talk about—was the role of the theater artist forced to operate within a regime of state terror.

Two Bay Area Argentine artists, Claudia Bernardi and Roberto Gutierrez Varea, spoke about the theater's response in their country to their recent economic collapse and the prior three decades of life in a police state. The Peruvian company Yayuchkani presented a moving piece about the ghost of a mother eternally searching for her "disappeared" son. Ugandan Charles Mulekwa and Nigerian Segun Ojewuyi each spoke of the assassination of key artists in their countries by the state apparatus. Irish actress Carmel McCafferty did a monologue about Bloody Sunday.

Somewhat lost in the mix was the connection of all this to the work of American theater artists working in an atmosphere of relative safety and privilege. But, as some at the festival pointed out, even that is changing. "We have our own 'disappeared' here now," asserts Varea, citing the recent internment of Americans of Arab origin without due process, and rhetoric by the authorities he finds "chillingly reminiscent" of that used in Argentina.