November-January 1996 THE ARTIST"S VOICE

The 2nd Annual Rat Conference for Alternative Theatres
by Wendy Knox, Artistic Director
Frank Theatre, Minneapolis

A couple of months ago, sitting in the cramped, overstuffed room which serves as an office for Frank Theatre, I fielded a call from Seattle. The voice said that someone in Austin, Texas had given them Frank Theatre's name as an organization which might be interested in participating in an upcoming alternative theatre conference in Seattle, and would I be interested in attending?

As artistic director of a theatre which produces maybe two shows a year, I was intrigued. I mean, who outside of Minneapolis had ever heard of Frank Theatre? Austin, Texas? Seattle? And what had they heard--that our work was "alternative"? In more than six years of producing work, working hard to keep the theatre going, persevering at defining who we were through the work that appeared on the stage, it was interesting to suddenly think about what that all added up to.

I hadn't really thought of Frank's work as "alternative"; to me "alternative" smacked of something that took place in the 60s. In my little corner of the world, the work that represents the mainstream of my community is seen at the Southern, Intermedia Arts, the Walker, Penumbra -- at any number of small to midsize venues whose work is on the edge and reflects a diverse world view, work that is connected to the world in which we live. The , to me, is the work that is done at the larger venues, the regional theatres and the Broadway shows.

The purpose of the conference was to create a network among "small and broke" theatres (many of whom are that way by choice), who are striving to produce work outside of the mainstream. At the first gathering last December, the rat was chosen as a totem, with the charge that these artists/organizations needed to adapt the survival skills of a rat, squeeze through the drainpipes, popping up where least expected, to infest the existing model; rats are "wily and indestructible and everywhere and eternal." The purpose of the network was to create a "pestilential association that would find its (many) tiny feet."

The Seattle conference was the second annual "Rat Conference." Playwright Erik Ehn wrote an article for Yale Theatre magazine, in which he described the Rat participants as "theatres that choose to operate under the radar, below the market -- the pushcart robbers, the fools for God's sake, the creeps, the busted alchemists, the trolls- (who) have crisis, not continuance, built into their missions. They can stop, and they can move ahead." I thought, I can see Frank in that context. Crisis? Stopping? Moving ahead? I'm game.

After reading Ehn's essays, I realized a more strongly felt motivation for participating: making contact. Frank Theatre is administered by one person (if anyone wants to help, call me). The office is in the back room of my apartment. I have days when I get up, go to work, come home, and never leave my apartment. And never see another person The biggest benefit is that I can work in my nightgown all day long, if I feel like it. The biggest drawback is that sense of isolation that comes from a lack of ongoing and meaningful contact with my artistic peers As Ehn noted in his article, with smaller theatres "financial deficit is not so pressing a problem overall as physical and emotional exhaustion."

As I perused the list of other participants, I recognized the opportunity -- to build a greater network, to meet these folks from other parts of the country, to see how they are surviving, how their work is being received -- as invaluable. What the hell... yeah. I run an alternative theatre. I suspect artistic peers in yonder parts. I'm going.

The assemblage of artists in the room at the Annex Theatre was remarkable -- nearly 40 organizations were represented by more than 50 artists. The range was from solo performers with zero budgets, to the Wooly Mammoth (a well-known theatre in DC), to Undermain Theatre in Dallas (who had just returned from a tour in the Balkans). While there were many things to unify the group - a conspiratorial feel of working under the radar, and a strong anti-institutional sentiment -- there was no unifying aesthetic. The idea of the conference was to join together in ways that were tactical over aesthetic, that had to do with infestation rather than leadership, to create an engine outside of the marketplace that would assist our survival.

In his article on the firs Rat gathering, Ehn threw down the glove. "Large theatres that have lost the grip of their spirits allow art, without causing it." The shared notion of many of the Rats was the making of theatre, the causing of art, was a raison d'etre, not a sideline activity. The identities of the groups were achieved through the work itself, not through a well-designed, slick marketing piece. And the work that is done by those that toil away on the fringe was recognized as crucial to the work of the mainstream; the eagerness to explore, to attempt, to fail, to make mistakes, was at the heart of the work.

We are learning again and again that the inside can't survive without the outside. In the case of theatre, the inside is a set of retail outfits, whose efforts at cooperation are designed to abet individualism first." The institutions on the inside have trouble making mistakes (it works against the need for continuance at any cost), while those mistakes that are made by the smaller groups are what feed the work as a whole, it gives them their edge, it shapes their identity. These organizations can stop, and then pick up the pieces, and start again. A sign in the lobby of the Annex proclaimed "RAT -- the national governing body of Big Cheap Theatre." Big Cheap Theatre is what the Rats are all about -- theatre which is connected, theatre which doesn't waste its resources, theatre that happens because of spirit, not because of facility. I was starting to get it now. Retail outfits? Man, I do run an alternative theatre. I'm feeling at home here.

Something about this conference gave me hope. Something about knowing that there is a shared struggle going on. Something about finding a greater context in which I can see my own work. Something about finding a definition that is not in negative relationship to the status quo, to the model that is held up for one to measure one's self, one's work, one's progress. Despite the fact that I was bred to be a TCG (Theatre Communications Group -- a network of regional theatres) player, chances are, the Guthrie ain't ever going to hire me. That fact used to bother me. Having had some time in the pas year to think about some of the transactions that have taken place, and having had the Rat experience, I've recognized some positive things. There's another kind of measuring stick.

First of all, I'm grateful for the kind of work I can do with Frank; despite the hell of making theatre on a shoestring budget, the overwhelming enthusiasm of the conference participants helped me recognize that in myself and in the people I work with. I wish it were an easier process to mount a show, but it's not. We know it will be a struggle, but we also know it will be good work -- what more can you ask for? Secondly, I have had the chance to work with some of the most diverse and interesting "good weird" artists in town. And, in working with these artists, I feel that we are causing art to happen, not simply allowing it. The commitment is to that goal, to the causing of art, rather than to a paycheck.

Finally, I'm grateful that I have a clear idea of the kind of work I want to do, and a commitment to continue shaping the identity of Frank through the work we put on the stage. For me, creating Big Cheap Theatre with one's soul intact, is far more meaningful and rewarding than that Big Expensive Spectacle where one is dissociated from one's heart.

A final cry from the rodential guru, regarding the Rats: "Our theatre is already political because the act of making theatre is inherently political... Theatre, forcefully executed, is a form of reproach; it is utopian. When theatre fails to recognize this potential, and turns its back on its charge to resist the market's necropolitan obsessions with past (nostalgia) and future (pie in the sky), then it is left with no option but to whine, Nobody cares; it's so hard to make a living...' It's supposed to be hard."

It is hard, it's going to get harder. If we hang on to what we're doing, keeping our eyes on the prize (survival and infestation), there will be no need to whine. Hissing maybe. Onward through the drainpipes.

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