Rats Saving a Sinking Ship

America's Alternative Theatres Unite

by Robert Faires

Fifty people on a stage, slouching in chairs, clutching coffee cups, stifling yawns. On this summer morn they have come into a rough circle to invoke a new American theatre.

It is a theatre that will infest every corner of the country, a theatre of risks, of vaulting imagination, a theatre of community and of service that survives on scams and barter, a theatre of size and scope but also poverty and tawdriness, a Big Cheap Theatre.

In a sense this theatre already exists, in the small companies producing their own personal brands of theatre in cities across the country. You know the kind; Austin is home to many such groups: Frontera/Hyde Park Theatre, Physical Plant Theatre, The Public Domain, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Troupe Texas, Vortex Repertory Company, to name a few. They share qualities: They work in houses of fewer than 150 seats; they produce most shows with budgets of two to three figures; artists share multiple responsibilities (acting, building sets, raising funds, etc.). Most of all, they are aggressively independent, staging works which matter to them and that they believe matter to others.

Still, the existence of such companies is always threatened. Because they make intense demands on the people who run them, they are almost always on the verge of collapse. If they don't drop from financial exhaustion (artists emptying their own pockets to fund the company's work), they fall from physical exhaustion (artists draining themselves meeting company responsibilities on top of other responsibilities: spouse, child, day job, etc.). When the few people at the heart of the company wear down, the company dies. Often, the death is untimely. The artists involved may have had more to say but had no more strength or patience with which to give those words voice.

Two years ago, someone came forward to say that it doesn't have to be that way, that there is a way to extend the lives of these smaller, independent stages and at the same time develop a national repertory company for experimental theatre. The someone was Erik Ehn, a Bay Area playwright whose highly imagistic and sensuous work has gained him widespread attention of late. (Ehn's Anarchy in the Oklahoma Kingdom [AOK] was staged in Austin in August.) Ehn offered his ideas in an essay for the Yale journal Theater. In "Towards Big Cheap Theater," he wrote, "Experimental theatres, geographically and economically isolated from one another, struggle separately when they could be struggling together - not in less pain perhaps, but in a common and revivifying pain." He proposed the creation of an Art Workers' Hostelry, an organization to provide "art exchanges" among small, non-profit theatres: exchanges of scripts, productions, artists, and ways of working. The Hostelry would be a structure through which these disparate theatres could draw strength from each other. These "theatres that choose to operate under radar, below the market - the pushcart robbers, the fools for God's sake, the creeps, the busted alchemists, the trolls" - could then "build a national theatre from a foundation of ethics, of assembly, of no-money."

The proposal struck a chord in theatre artists across the land. Some wrote responses to Theater. One took action. A playwriting professor at the University of Iowa persuaded the chairman of the Department to host a meeting of interested companies on the university's campus. The first weekend in December, 1994, representatives of 20 "small broke theatres" assembled for three days of food, drink, and talk of Big Cheap Theatre. Of the 20, five came from Austin.

The heavy Austin presence resulted from a local Ehn connection developed in the months prior to the conference. Don Howell, an Austin theatre educator, patron, and supporter called Ehn to see about getting copies of his plays. In turn, Ehn put Howell in touch with Allison Narver, then the Artistic Director for the Annex Theatre in Seattle, who was interested in learning more about the theatre scene in Austin. They connected, and Howell helped put together an event that got Ehn and Narver to Austin for a weekend. With sponsorship from the Austin Circle of Theatres, Dance Umbrella, and the UT Department of Theatre and Dance, Ehn presented a playwriting workshop and a program on the Big Cheap Theatre idea here last October. During his visit, Ehn invited Austin's theatre companies to Iowa. Five accepted: Frontera/Hyde Park, The Public Domain, Physical Plant, Salvage Vanguard, and Howell's company, teeny feats.

The Austin Squad, as Ehn dubbed them, joined groups from Dallas, Seattle, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Minneapolis, and San Francisco in Iowa. The attending companies discovered they had many differences - from the sizes of their respective groups and the number of people in them (one individual to dozens of people) to the amounts of money with which they work (zero dollars to $900,000), to the focus of their work (new plays, site-specific works, community outreach, etc.) - but they found similarities, too: an everyone-does-everything way of working, shared interests in using spaces to engage audiences more actively, a sense of theatre as a way of seeing or behaving, an ethic. If nothing else came out of the conference, this confirmation to each group that there are others like it, groups that share its philosophies and goals, was valuable. As Ehn noted in a report on the event published in Theater: "We became aware of each other. This, on its own, relieves the pressure."

But more came out of it. Ehn again: "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." The participants discussed creating a network, not exactly like Ehn's Hostelry, but very like it. They exchanged information and talked of sharing work. The conference gave birth to a fanzine.

It also gave birth to the rat, or RAT, as name and symbol for this movement. Names for the assembly had been loosely tossed about beforehand; at some point, Ehn's Art Workers' Hostelry was abandoned. In its place emerged RAT. To some, it was an acronym for "Regional Alternative Theatres" or "Raggedy Ass Theatres." To others, it stood for nothing but itself. The ambiguity seemed to appeal to the Iowa gang. Then, Ehn seized on the term and - as he is wont to do - illuminated the metaphor lying within: "We squeezed through drainpipes to get to the Iowa idyll (to find its corn). We looked for a name. We became the Rat Conference." The rat imagery became key to the sensibility of these groups and their future together. Ehn ended his report with these words: "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."

In the name of the RAT, then, theatre artists from a dozen spots across the land - Johnson City, Tennessee, Brooklyn, San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, D.C., Dallas, San Antonio, and, yes, Austin - gathered in the Annex Theatre in Seattle in August. In some ways, the second RAT Conference was a replay of the first: lots of introductions, descriptions of work and ways of working, talk of what RAT could and should be. But while the talk covered similar ground - a necessity given the number of new members - it was no less animated or powerful. Every session pulsed with deeply felt sentiments about the import of theatre.

Where the second conference built on the first was in sharing ways of working. Seminars were led by participating artists: "Budgeting/Financial Management for the Smaller Raggedy Ass Theatre," "Guerrilla Marketing," "Theatre in Bars, Alleys, Warehouses, and Station Wagons," and assorted workshops on Big Cheap Theatre, in which artists shared success stories of how they pulled off impressive stage effects using inexpensive or free materials (e.g., TV sets as lighting instruments) or nontraditional means (puppets, actors to describe special effects). Seeded throughout these seminars were stories of failure - i.e., how not to do something - and secrets to scams, ways in which materials or services could be obtained for nothing or next to it, generally by taking advantage of the system somehow.

In many ways, the RATs define themselves in opposition to the system. Both conferences have been filled with talk of what the affiliated companies don't want: They don't want this new entity to have officers or a board of directors or to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. They don't even want a formal name. In the final discussion of the second conference, the group rejected setting the RAT designation in stone. They want this entity to be like their art, rising out of a need and purpose. Someone suggested creating a new name every time they meet.

The rejection of institutions and mainstream procedures may smack of the condescension of self-styled rebels, but it is more: the exploration of an alternative form of organization. The basis for that lies in the history of these groups in creating alternative art: new plays, new visions of established works, works created for specific sites. The independence fueling these artists is fueling their approach to organizing.

That independence also allows them to "frame the debate," as they might put it on Nightline: While some groups are responding to arts funding cuts and the demonization of art by trying to persuade the system to be more generous, the RATs are responding by inventing a new system. It acknowledges the dominant system and the value of its wealth - hell, it steals from it to survive - but it is based on the principle that it will always exist outside the dominant system. Again, Ehn expressed it succinctly: "When we demonstrate the moral usefulness of theatre, we represent resources the rich covet. The rich want to come begging to us. It's spatially impossible for money to follow you if you're reaching for it; better to go where the money isn't and lure it after you."

Interestingly, the place RAT may be going next is where a lot of money is: The Mall of America. Enthusiasm is generating for a third conference to be held on Leap Day, 1996, at the monster mall in Minnesota. (It's tied into a scam, of course: cheap air fares to and from the Mall if you go and return the same day.) The idea, in true RAT fashion, is not to spend any money there, perhaps even to promote a "Day Without Shopping" art event. Issues on the table: Bringing more diverse voices into the RAT mix. More ways to bridge those geographic distances.

The RAT Conferences have already changed Austin theatre and will change it more. From the first conference, Jason Neulander and David Bucci of Salvage Vanguard Theater were able to facilitate a West Coast tour of Bucci's play Kid Carnivore, making stops at RAT-affiliated theatres. At the second conference, Vicky Boone of Frontera/Hyde Park connected with Seattle director Susan Fenichell (who has directed at UT) to discuss bringing her adaptation of The Bacchae, Torn to Pieces, to Austin. Frontera/Hyde Park has also commissioned a new play from Ehn, to be developed next year. And some RAT-affiliated artists will be coming to town in January for FronteraFest.

As Austin theatre alters, expect to see the theatre of America alter, too, to grow with more visible and vibrant new work, work of community and service. What do we call it? Experimental? Alternative? Neo-communal? That isn't the RATs' worry. As Ehn expressed it following the first conference: "Definition is historical, and we're just now present. Brochures are way down the pike." n

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