Volume 27, Number I (1996) THEATER

The RAT Race
by Peter Novak and Tom Sellar

A section about money and its implications for theater couldn't overlook the American theater's current experiment in self-invention: Regional Alternative Theaters, or RAT. A fledgling and spirited group has emerged as a result of Erik Ehn's 1993 manifesto for the network, the enthusiastic responses it received from around the country, and his subsequent reports on the project (published in this magazine). Through boisterous conferences, co-productions, Internet discussions, and a healthy number of new manifestoes, RAT people have tried to make good on the original impulse for "a national service organization that provides art exchanges between small nonprofit theaters." And now that they have, RAT's actual breakthroughs and problems compose a sharper picture of its wonderfully anomalous position in American theater.

The first gathering was in Austin, Texas in 1993. Artists from area theaters such as Physical Plant, Public Domain, Frontera Productions, and Salvage Vanguard affirmed the need for a national organization, and persuaded the University of Iowa to sponsor a second, larger conference in December 1994, pay each theater modest travel expenses, and find its representatives a place to stay. Many disparate companies joined at the Iowa conference: Annex Theater (from Seattle), Bottom's Dream (Los Angeles), One [sic] Thousand Things (Minneapolis), Woolly Mammoth (Washington, D.C.), Thieves Theatre (New York), The Living Theatre (New York), Sledgehammer (San Diego), Theater E and 7 Stages (Atlanta), and the Hillsborough Moving Company (Tampa Bay).

For many of these companies the only way to flourish in a commodity culture is to either embrace it or thoroughly resist it -- and whether out of confusion or sheer necessity, RAT people have tried both tactics at the same time. The Iowa contingent held a funding teach-in, where Allison Narver (former Artistic Director of Seattle's Annex Theater) discussed ways to adopt budget strategies (such as manipulating cash reserves) from larger institutions and scale them down to an appropriate size for RATs ("like cutting my sister's prom dress down to fit me"). They also devised a "Scamnation" workshop to teach each other unusual ways to raise project monies (like starting 1-900 telephone services and playing poker), to ferret out and stretch cheap resources, and to persuade other local organizations to help them produce. Many participants agreed that "scamming" and scrounging were far preferable to applying for "honest" corporate gift money of the Philip Morris kind. (Nick Fracaro from New York's Thieves Theater boasted: "I'd rather have one dishonest dollar than nine honest' ones.") RAT didn't create anti-corporate sentiment, of course, but the gathering did endow the small theaters' search for spare change with a little valor and a lot of humor and bravado.

The companies are also talking with each other frequently (and cheaply) on the Internet, where theaters seek out "RAT friendly" actors for auditions, inquire about playwrights and plays, and share news, advice, and gossip. And recently they have begun to collaborate on the kind of multi-theater projects Ehn envisioned; among the first such productions was Naomi Iizuka's Marlowe's Eye, co-produced by Los Angeles-based Bottom's Dream and Seattle's Annex Theater with a director from Undermain Theater in Dallas. But there are obstacles too. Even among RAT theaters, there's little aesthetic, economic, structural, or political common ground. Thieves Theatre, for instance, often does original site-specific projects that double as political protest; for their most notorious piece, The Living Museum of the Nomad Monad, they set up a teepee near the Manhattan Bridge and lived and performed in it for the better part of nine months in 1991 as part of their advocacy of rights for the homeless. (They proudly point to the fact that it was entirely government-funded, since the teepee was built with 78 U.S. mailbags in a rent-free public park area.) By contrast Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble owns two buildings, operates with an annual budget of $750,000, and contemplates doing offbeat ("but really good") versions of A Christmas Carol or The Mousetrap to supplement company-created work. And between such extremes there are companies like Frank Theater, which produces a balance of new plays (Mac Wellman, Caryl Churchill, Migdalia Cruz) and classics (from Shakespeare to Sophie Treadwell).

That all three theaters can consider themselves "alternative" is proof of the aesthetic inclusiveness of the organization -- but also of its lack of cohesion and shared sense of purpose. This may be a central conflict in the RAT experiment: the paradoxical challenge to remain fluid, adaptable, and open to value differences on the one hand, while struggling to stake out some collective identity and mission on the other. And that puts them more or less in the same position as the fractured American left: trying to balance the conflicting aspirations of vastly different subcultures with few unifying common values.

For RATs, though, being anti-TCG or anti-big-institutions is just grist for the group's mills, and not necessarily an end in itself. "The RATs are entrepreneurial, that's all," says Jim Chesnutt (former Managing Director of Annex Theater), "they always want to be pioneers, not followers. When developing, you have to get outside the box, get free of preconceptions... then you can build all of the structures." But can oppositional impulses sustain an organization of artists? Of activists? What do they have in common aside from a need to turn their disenchantment into something creative? Can friction be mobilizing?

Though they insist they're not an organization and don't want to have a "mission," RAT clearly needs a rallying point and organizing ethos if it's going to be more than a highly dramatic caucus. The source of the problem -- as well as any potential solution -- may be in Ehn's original manifesto. Ehn's seemingly incongruous hopes -- that RAT people find stability, but through transience, poverty, opposition, and ever-expanding community -- are as compelling as they are problematic. His initial idea for a service organization was a hybrid, approximately, of the Federal Theatre Project (in its attempt to organize a national theater), Grotowski's Polish Laboratory Theater (in its endorsement of a "poverty" of means and surfeit of spirit), and Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker houses (in its community configuration and socialized work ethic). But as Ehn acknowledged, "The problem with the Federal Theatre Project was that it was federal" -- employing almost 10,000 people across the country at its peak. Now in an era far more skeptical of a nationalized anything (never mind a theater), theater people want the F.T.P.'s unity but not the potentially rigid centralization or a high-maintenance administrative apparatus with no state backing. The result: a young, decentralized group which is service and community-minded on the one hand and dramatically cynical and totally irreverent on the other.

Not surprisingly the most visible ambivalence within the network comes from people's reactions to the service and voluntary poverty" part of Ehn's project. Ehn and some of his cohorts embrace an idealistic, nearly religious, notion of poverty. "I know some good poor theaters," Ehn writes, "but I know more good broke ones; the latter are without money by design; they pursue a spiritual poverty by exploring broke-ness as a value -- a freedom, a witness." Others, like Wendy Knox of Frank Theater, aren't so sure. "The idea that we should all go out and get jobs in soup kitchens to either salve our souls or feed our art is not my deal at all," she says: neither is "the idea of salvation of your art through social service, that in order to experience disenfranchisement, you have to adopt a highly visible demonstration of it." Though the broke-ness Ehn argues for is intended to oppose LORT theaters' smugness, that same principle creates tension when it's applied to the artist's place in a community.

Still, if the rhetoric tends to aestheticize "broke-ness" and romanticize "poverty," it's mostly an alarmed response to the dark, corporate-driven 1990s -- a crazed run into oncoming traffic because the lights are brighter on the other side of the street. RAT's participants generally sound more cynical than righteous, more playful than earnest. They'd like to avoid the salesman mentality, but when they're forced to do crass things for money, they'll take an unapologetic commercial approach (like the 1-900 phone lines), and probably even laugh about it.

All this anathema to the LORT world, where salaried professionals tend to take themselves far more seriously. They tend to regard the RAT experiment with condescension -- as something for left-talking, uncommitted Generation X amateurs who have an endearing sense of humor but need a reality check. Despite such demurrals the RAT artists are anything but uncommitted, and the RAT ideal actually calls the bluff of most LORT companies, who preach diversity and community outreach but have few direct ties to their communities. Ehn's proposal -- that artists receive room and board from community organizations for work in shelters, educational programs, or kitchens -- means that artists would have to live and interact in their communities with a commitment far exceeding what most resident companies do for "outreach": just holding matinees for school groups or visiting a class from time to time. If fully realized, RAT would make communities and theaters for more mutually dependent and identify creative performances as something with truly public origins and interest.

Ehn experienced this give-and-take relationship's potential firsthand while teaching homeless people in San Francisco's low-income Tenderloin district. Like him, many RAT people are clearly enticed by rekindled social activism a la Dorothy Day; their talk about a green revolution, poverty, and social, economic, and political consciousness-raising are avowedly progressive. Ehn admits that "my lingo is old left," but adds: "I don't care. The language was never given its day anyhow."

Not all RAT artists like this model for their theater or their lifestyle. At a recent conference in Minnesota, some artists dismissed the idea of interviewing homeless people for a proposed performance: "I see too many artists pretending to be social workers without the training, skills, commitment, or genuine interest in... the needs of those communities," says Knox. "And with RAT, as with many other current artists and arts organization, I'm not so sure it's just a complacency' and not a romanticization of the problems of the people whose experience is being appropriated, as well as a romanticization of the role of the artist -- all in the chase for funding dollars."

Accommodating such dissent may be the strongest part of the RAT dynamic. They are not afraid to speak up or take risks, as long as they're big and cheap ones. Last February a special $33 round-trip airfare to the Great Mall of America in Minnesota inspired a hastily-organized conference at that location, since everyone could afford to fly there on short notice -- a slightly chaotic event that sums up the group's style and story. Their fly-by-night whimsy is part of a transient ideology which makes RAT enticing and fun, but may keep the organization from taking root.

For despite Ehn's blueprint, there is not single aesthetic, no political motive, no creative or spiritual principle to unify RAT people. Each definition of RAT is usually countered with a claim that the opposite is equally valid. And belonging to a movement with no formal identity, rules, regulations, or dues is starting to frustrate some people. Others see this as a reason to join up ("They day I have to pay dues to this organization is the day I piss on this organization," announced Mitchell Gossett from Bottom's Dream). Everyone is becoming increasingly aware that belonging to RAT means continually challenging, redefining, and re-evaluating the operation. And that means they are coming to see RAT less as an organization with solutions and more as an outlook and source of renewal.

Expectations for a grand network of counter-culture conspirators may have diminished since Ehn's manifesto -- there's no steering committee, central office, or designated leader (nor do most RATs want them). The conference remains an idealistic proposition with devout disciples. Meetings often begin with a communally-prepared meal, because they firmly believe in companionship -- in "breaking bread" with each other. At the Mall of America meeting held on February 29, the artists even dedicated that and all future leap year days as a "RAT Holy Day." That declaration may have been overly optimistic, though; the gathering was far smaller than any previous meeting's, with only a handful of attendees. Already some fringe members are proclaiming (with trademark playfulness) that "RAT is dead," to provoke their colleagues out of complacency and prevent too fixed an identity from taking hold. Ehn and the others welcome such opposition as integral to what RAT is supposed to be -- a community in dialogue and perpetual flux, struggling against an often-hostile environment through its own vitality. As Ehn put it in his original proposal, RAT "is meant to work like Viking society at its best -- as a democratic union of clans and cults."

In the next few years RAT will most likely mutate into some other form, perhaps even an electronic one. RAT has relied heavily on the Internet to communicate between far-flung member companies, and a Virtual RAT conference doesn't seem far away. In the meantime, though, mere communication isn't enough for some of the more impatient artists. Ehn and Narver dream of forming "GO USA," a traveling national company that is site-specific, adapting the work to each community it visits. Annex Theater is developing a Great Big Show, which will feature the work of other RAT theaters. And in August 1996 Salvage Vanguard will sponsor a RAT "anti-conference" or "RATRAVE" in Austin. Participants will bring projects and see each other's work performed firsthand, rather than simply talking about it.

"If RAT can be what it is -- a network among smaller theaters and not another TCG -- it holds the possibility of really meaning something. If not, in the end, it's all a bunch of hype and as much crap as that which it claims to counter," says Knox. Above all RAT may be seen as a collection of oddball, creative outsiders, united by their marginalized eccentricities and struggling for a community of alike outsiders. RAT is splendidly incoherent, but the potency of its antidote to America's theater institutions is still untested. Meanwhile the RATs will no doubt continue to scrounge the back streets for new methods and values -- whether in a communal pack or as a collection of individual pests.

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