Volume 25, Number 3 (1994) THEATER

A Gargle of Rats
by Erik Ehn

Being a brief account of the formation and first meeting of the Rat Conference in eastern Iowa: a pestilential association find its (many, tiny) feet.


An assembly of small, broke theaters was convened, after an article proposing such a congress appeared in Theater in 1993. The intention: to assemble like-minded theater workers who labor outside or at odds with the mainstream in order to create mechanisms for communicating, establish a collective identity, and exchange work and ways of working.

On splitting the money and assigning the pillows, it looked as if there were resources enough to accommodate representatives from six groups. The dates were announced: December 2-4, 1994. A team drove up from Omaha, another from Austin; frequent flyer miles were begged, board members were cajoled; students and alums put out the cots. The lack of money created a pool of participants who would not allow poverty to inhibit artistic impulsiveness. By December 4, 30 organizations stood together in the room. Loaves and fishes.


Some groups are built out from individuals (e.g., the lone wolf producer nimble enough to infiltrate schools and government-subsidized programs); others are created and driven by duos (life partners and art partners), or egalitarian partnerships of three of four. From these central authorities, crews are created project by project, or ensembles ranging in size from 11 to 11 hundred (the latter the international membership of the Living Theatre). In a few cases, there's a more traditional ordering of roles into directorships, etc. Not everyone has a board, not everyone has not-for-profit status. Many of the theaters are in the process of finding themselves in the shifting of shapes. All hold to the notion that everyone does everything. Budgets range fro a literal zero to $900,000. Financial deficit is not so pressing a problem overall as physical and emotional exhaustion. The principal drains are overwork and the sense that the various strengths of one's life are not allowed to collaborate (i.e., that work as a mother, a businessperson, and a director pull in three different directions).

Many of the companies are working n a site-specific vein: with an architectural/archeological emphasis -- warehouses, wharves; a social purpose -- shelters, prisons; and ecological sense -- bars, clubs. Bonnie Marranca's understanding of theater "ecology" informs virtually all the work: producers are searching out performance spaces that more actively engage the audience.


We became aware of one another. This, on its own, relieves the pressure. The labor is not concentrated, but is widely spread over time and space. The work we are doing becomes a national chore, with a historical context.

One of our great wounds -- the difficulty of integrating our lives as artists with our lives as whatever else -- is actually a symptom of our mission. Everyone at the table put forward the idea that theater is not meant to be a constituent part of one's life -- rather, it is a way of seeing or behaving; it is an ethic. An ethic is not a business, and the unlimited growth model doesn't serve it. An ethic that builds on itself, that locates itself, is prudery; it spoils. An ethic properly infiltrates. Good ethics can be compatible with a good livelihood, but ethics can't be handled like goods. A sale yields estrangement: there's a new owner. An ethical theatrical contract demands co-ownership; money is parallel (not irrelevant, but alongside; not a consequence).

The rat became our totem; we all squeezed through drainpipes to get to the Iowa idyll (to find its corn). We looked for a name. We became the Rat Conference.


We met each other, we identified our separate missions, we took steps towards giving to our shared mission; lastly, we committed ourselves to building on the serendipity of our collegiality. Some people have computers, so we're online now (KarlGaj@aol.com), thanks to Theater E (naturally enough) in San Diego. Jim Leverett once said if you leave two theater people alone for more than a minute, they right away want to put out a newsletter. Accepting this as a caveat, we are putting out a fanzine instead -- produced with as much monstrous, smelly ugliness as a lack of time and compassion will allow. (Versions are already moving: contact Annex, Sledgehammer, Thieves Theater, Salvage Vanguard, Public Domain, me). The object is to fill the publication with as much arcania, compulsive ranting, self-immolating rhetoric, t-shirt advertising, and mendacity as possible. We're aiming to get together again in June, with more rats and more corn -- an even more eclectic set of theaters, more food. We're looking to stage a festival, perhaps in New Mexico, within the next two years. Subplots were announced: smaller exchanges will take place over the next few months (e.g., in Austin in April, at the University of Texas, Austin groups and Undermain will be converging). We are not getting a 501c3, we are not forming a board, we are not electing officers. We are working. Karl Gajdusek (Theater E) recommends that we be weakest when together, strongest when apart.

Our purpose, then, is tactical over aesthetic. Too much attention is paid to aesthetics in the lively arts anyway -- the dialogue's off track. The lively arts live in the live. I can't even say that the Rats all like new plays. My hope is that the plays between us will become neutral and our virtues will be exercised in the way we handle them and their spaces, and in the way we discover one another (courtesy) and discover ourselves to each other (virtuosity , poverty, ecology). A Muller-heavy theater will host a Gilbert and Sullivan project -- in an ideal world, we'd end up with a Mikadomachine or Landscape with Yeomen, but if we don't get to have that much fun right off, we are still in a position to infest an infinite variety of forms through a common ethical vocabulary. Morality/amorality, anarchy/utopian collectivism -- these don't matter, are impossible grounds for debate. However one gets there, the ante is an obligation to divide resources equitably, to reserve the need for food, shelter, and labor as the standards behind money, and to work with audiences as intimate collaborators in search of innovation.

The will to infest, raid, and interfere is more powerful than the impulse to interrupt (or otherwise deconstruct), so maybe we're more neo-bop modernist (Balu plus Gillespie) than post-structuralist. Who cares. I'm not so good with "isms" and we'd all rather work. Definition is historical and we're just now present. Brochures are way down the pike.

We move from small and broke to big and cheap in order to cop a deeper future, in good company. Our ability to flourish is not tied to dominance or status. We will thrive by eating through insulation and scurrying across the tops of beams. We will not influence our environment through leadership; we will infest. Leave the old structures in place; we need to breed in the linen closets; we need to steal xerox. We want to stay small and grow to many.


Since the 1993 article, some terms have been floating around. Following is my view of their meanings:

ART WORKERS' HOSTELRY: An earlier name for this project. An organization meant to facilitate the movement of artists, projects, and methodologies between small and like-minded theaters. Some of my biases: a) that priority be given to the exchange of ways of working over tours of finished pieces; b) that in-kind donations of goods and services be given priority over cash (we don't want to expend the resources of our imagination sussing out routes ot money vs. routes to art; if we offer up our unity -- the unity of this conference -- to the mercies of concentrated capital, we submit to the same model of dependency that chronically invalidates our field; c) that a means of interweaving services theater offers with other forms of service (such as the provision of food and shelter) be discovered and explored (understanding that such service isn't theater, but is like theater, and compatible with it).

"Hostel" is in the title because I think maybe one way of getting free room for circuit members would be to cut some kind of a deal with the international hostels some towns have.

BIG CHEAP THEATER: An aesthetic, common to some of the member theaters; interpreted broadly enough, it might serve as a rough embrace for our collective.

Big -- in several senses, not all of which need be maintained at once: theater that invites the transgression of social borders through the asking of favors; that finds new means of distributing authority in the rehearsal process; that poses challenges to audience/actor boundaries; and that encourages the cooperation of several communities -- weight lifters, morris dancers, Rosicrucians. Theater that is too various to see at once (producing a high volume of work, or works of such density they require more than one viewing, or work in context of a company's history). Theater that's geographically broad (pulling together workers and audiences from remote places), hybrid (expanding notions of form by combining disciplines), and spectacular (favoring enormous gestures of goodwill and imagination over technical finesse).

Cheap -- no money (poverty of sprit and the hubris it suggest are our genius); tawdry. Bit without cheap leads to enormous and ancient frustrations. Cheapness as a guide suggests all along the way that we already have what we need (outrage, language, and vulnerability).

Theater -- at minimum, a person taking care of a space on behalf of another; live stewardship. When the caretaker is an artist, point of view is introduced, and with it the possibility of giving offense. Theater = love of neighbor expressed through acts of corporal mercy, in which love maintains its power to offend.

POVERTY: In the spiritual sense -- a root reliance on grace. Distinct from destitution -- a chronic and unwanted condition of insolvency. With spiritual poverty, one opts to accept a lack so as to make an empty space (a theater) serve as a field for a community's play.

SERVICE: There's a widening gap between the rich and the destitute, between information (controlled by the rich) and knowledge (information's underclass). Theater seems to be drifting away from self-knowledge specifically from a sense of its usefulness, and from a vocabulary for communicating its usefulness to its audiences (its collaborators). Abundant money doesn't need a reason for art -- it can have it when it wants; all is leisure. The destitute have pressing material needs. Of what use, immaterial and material, is theater? One way (one of many ways) to address this question is to hold theater up to other forms of stewardship.

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