September 1997 OFF

RAT and the Press
By Jennifer Woodward

This summer, New York was infested with RATs. Not the furry, brown, pink-tailed, cat-sized critters in your garbage bags. The RATs are a collective of theater artists who have decided to gather in New York to meet and share ideas.

Sounds simple enough.

The RAT Conference has developed into quite a national phenomenon. And for a conglomeration that seeks no press, they have been getting an awful lot of it. Still, many people continue to ask me, "what's UP with the RATs? Who the hell ARE they?"

And so, having attended merely six collective hours of the conference, I will brazenly encapsulate my personal impressions of RAT for those who are still confused by all the conflicting articles, or those who still care.

Some background: A few years ago, Erik Ehn, (playwright and "father" of the RAT hypothesis) wrote a proposal for what he called "an art-worker's hostelry." The idea was to form a network of theater artists who would ultimately become their own version of a local theater community, except on a national - even worldwide - level. RAT has been called by some a "hippie version of the TCG" and it was intended to lead to a broader societal acceptance of alternative theater, perhaps even generate revenue to support it. Ideally, in lieu of fundraising or grantwriting, RATs could participate in a nationwide barter system that would sustain them.

No one seems to know where the name RAT came from, but it is not an acronym for "Regional Alternative Theater" or "Raggedy Assed Theater" or even "Righteously Asinine Theater." It seems to be whatever you can come up with for an 'R,' an 'A' and a 'T.' And anyone who wants to call themselves a RAT can be one.

RATfest(ation) '97 (this year's conference) included members from unrelated companies all across the country (25 or so) who gathered to discuss theater. There have been three previous RAT conferences: Austin, Minneapolis and Seattle. This year it was in New York. The conference lasted nine days, and was hosted by three venues: HERE, The Ohio and the East 4th Street Theater. Members traveled from as far away as Seattle, and slept mostly on floors in Brooklyn, having barely scraped together enough cash to attend.

Some conference topics included: The Electronic RAT, discussions about the web page and internet expansion; RATso's RATchet, 200 different three-minute plays; You Want Fries With That? A workshop where members created a piece together; A Failures Discussion, open-forum talk about artistic and administrative failures and what was learned from them; roundtable discussions; dinner meetings, and a Press, Critic & RAT discussion, which everyone thought would end in bloodshed. I'll explain...

Over the past few months, there has been a slow build-up of discussions on the RAT e-mail list (their main source of communication) about press and criticism, the value of press to the artist, the role of critics to art. But the main provocateuse was a character called Mary Feast, (who was rumored to be a fictional creation of two outspoken RATs - see below under "clinically insane"), who slung her venom pseudonymously, and then proceeded to quit the rat list once she was outed. But the damage was done, and the personal attacks and generalized erroneous statements continued to rankle the remaining RATs. [For a fuller account of the e-exchange, see Stephen Nunns' article, "Rat Fest!" Aug. 19, 1997 in The Village Voice.]

I have to admit, the discussion that interested me most was Press, Critic & RAT (OFF became involved in the debate between RAT and the Fringe Festival last December, and bore the brunt of RAT attack at the time, mainly because of a critical spin we put on the issue.) Press, Critic & RAT was well-attended, which wasn't surprising as the subject occupied more than a few bytes (and snarls) on the RAT e-mail list. Most of the press representatives (not I) were also called and invited personally by the RATs.

I went partially out of curiosity; to meet my e-friends and enemies face to face; partially to champion the Positive Power of Puny Publication and defend our little paper against those RATs who are eager to categorize everything in print as the evil brainchild of Adolph S. Ochs.

I hardly consider OFF a member of the "press." We have no editorial hierarchy, we can print out our current subscriber list on one sheet of labels, and as far as I know, no one has pieced together any out-of-context quotes from our reviews for their marquee: ("What a piece of... astounding...[work]! -OFF Journal)

Nevertheless, I went wearing a bullet-proof vest, and I noticed that the bona-fide members of the press seemed equally wary.

The main point of conflict was this: RAT does not seek to define itself. It does not want to label itself. My use of the word "it" is itself erroneous, because RAT is not an "it." RAT is an amorphous entity that shuns gimmicks and is only interested in those who understand the image-less image, the face-less face. "We're not a cult, for god's sake," one RAT admonished me at the meeting. But to outside observers, this anomalous non-ness is daunting.

What does this have to do with the press? Well, the RATs hate the press. They feel misunderstood. However, any journalism student will tell you that a story has to have an angle. And editors are usually strict, so the angle better be interesting. The two most appealing angles on RAT are: a) it is undefined, mysterious and cryptic. Juicy. b) It mainly communicates electronically, due to the remoteness of its membership, and the recent communication has been venomous. Juicy.

So is it any surprise that the press focuses on these angles for lack of another? I pointed out that if the RATs were interested in getting good press, they could develop a mission statement, a purpose, and a way to define themselves that would be clear and not misrepresentational. This was against the whole point, they told me. And yet, two members wrote a letter to Ross Wetzsteon, theater editor of The Village Voice, asking him to fly Erik Ehn to New York to write an insider article from one who understands. (For the record, Erik's plane ticket was eventually subsidized by a collection from members of the RAT list.)

I'm confused. They want press, but they don't want press that misrepresents them. In that case, they'd rather have no press at all. RATs, let me introduce you to the Constitution. If you don't want to be goose-stepped out of your theater, then the press can say whatever it wants, and you have every right - one of the few benefits of living in the land of fruited plains - to start a publication of your own.

Halfway through the meeting, several members of the press expressed their frustration at the resentment of the artists they are trying to support. "We're not the bad guys," one writer said. "Our ultimate goal is to get to know the artist and do our best to translate what they do. We are just as frustrated as you are when our editors push for an exaggerated angle." This came as a revelation. A breath of collective relief was drawn as the room sensed that the unseen battle was not between the artists and writers/critics, but between the artists and the editors. A new enemy was targeted, and the writers in the room relaxed.

Having met and spoken to a few RATs, I am much clearer about their motives. In fact, I think the lunacy is primarily generated by the afore-alluded two members of RAT (Gabriele Schafer and Nick Fracaro of Thieves' Theater) whom I have decided are both playfully - yet clinically - insane. Since I discovered this, the rest of RAT makes much more sense. Despite the fact that there are many who agree with the more vitriolic and radical RATs, it seems to me that there are many more who are simply interested in meeting like-minded people for exchanges and future collaboration. I still believe that a mission statement or two would greatly benefit the RATs, but an honest attempt to create a national community between alternative theaters can't be all bad.

Coincidentally, a family of tourists happened to stumble upon the meeting: A middle-aged man with curly hair, a colorful shirt and a camera, a woman I'm assuming was his wife, who had an ankle brace and was carrying a cane (one can only guess what havoc the search for downtown theater wreaks) and a lanky teen-aged boy who was clutching a melange of show leaflets he had procured from telephone poles. They asked if they could watch and were ushered in. They became somewhat of a novelty throughout the meeting, the ultimate babes in the woods, unwittingly representing the reason (I hope) why we bother doing theater: because there are tourists who come from Nebraska, or even the Upper-West Side, to see something they have never seen before. "It wasn't easy to find you guys" they explained to us. "But we're so sick of that Broadway stuff. And we like interesting theater. So we found you."

It sort of made us all look at each other and forget what we were fighting about.