Raving About Theatre

A Swarm of Wily, Unruly Theatre Types Meet in the Heat

You've been out in it. The heat. That blister-raising, synapse-frying Austin August heat. It's ghastly. It presses on you like some mammoth sweaty gator perched on your back. It chars the little hairs on your arms and neck. It makes pit bulls weep. It can drop a Dallas Cowboy quicker'n you can say "subpoena." I mean, it's God's Own Furnace. What kind of twisted soul willingly goes out in that kind of heat? Or more to the purpose, what kind of twisted soul willingly comes to this town when it's hip deep in this swelter? Mad dogs? Englishmen? Quentin Tarantino?

Try raving RATs.

Thursday marks the start of the Austin RatRave in the Heat Wave, a weekend of workshops, performances, play readings, arguments, lengthy meals, laughter, parties, gossip, drinking, and, if anyone thinks of it, bowling, all in the name of something called RAT. What RAT is depends on who's talking about it. Some folks consider it a movement, some a network of like-minded artists, some the savior of an art form dying under the weight of its own ossified institutions. It may or may not be any of these things, and the folks who have taken part in what have come to be called "RAT conferences" are pleased to debate the matter with you. What is most clear about RAT is that it is about theatre and at least in part about bringing together people who believe in theatre. That is why this weekend will see some 50 theatre artists from all across the country joining another 20 or 30 theatre artists locally to "rave" about their art in our heat.

In a way, it figures that the theatre artists would wind up here in the thick of our most brutal season. The musicians -- they get this town in March; they get to flock here for the SXSW music conference right when spring is settling in and the temperatures are cracking the 80s for the first time of the year. But then, musicians have a leg up on theatre artists these days. They face struggles in the pursuit of their art, sure, but at least when they face whatever hardships they may, they can take some comfort in the knowledge that music is still a form with some currency in our society. People listen to it. They talk about it. It concerns them. Not to put too fine a point on it, but who in America today gives a rat's ass about theatre?

Well, obviously, the RATS.

But it's often hard to tell who else. When the number of empty seats far outnumber the ones with patrons in them, when the amount of media attention is anemic compared to what's accorded athletics, when the financial support dries up faster than a puddle in West Texas, it sure makes theatre seem like a big yawn to most of the country. Which is hardship enough for those producers who have grand auditoriums in which to stage theatre and budgets in the six-figure range or better, but it's doubly tough for the smaller producers, the independent companies and individual artists who work in spaces of 150 seats or fewer, who may be juggling their artistic efforts with fulltime jobs, who may be getting by only by the grace of their credit card limits. They're putting far, far more sweat and spirit into what they do than they ever get back in any sort of financial or emotional compensation, and, laboring as they often do in geographic and economic isolation, they can burn out quickly -- as artists, as contributors to a community, and as human beings.

RAT has become a way to counter the isolation for these Lone Rangers of the stage. As conceived by playwright Erik Ehn under the name Art Workers Hostelry, it was to be an organization uniting purposefully small, independent or experimental theatres all across the land, giving these struggling entities a structure through which they could share art -- scripts, productions, artists -- and ways of working, and most importantly, draw strength from each other. His initial description of it in an essay for the Yale journal Theater led to a meeting of "small broke theatres" on the campus of the University of Iowa in December, 1994. It was a weekend of these groups eating and drinking and discovering each other, of swapping "dirty trade secrets and talking about our personal problems," as Karl Gajdusek of San Diego's Theatre E remembers. From it came a desire on part of these artists to strengthen their ties to each other and a name for the network or movement or loose confederation that they were developing: RAT. Even though it lent itself to all sorts of handy acronyms, everything from "Regional Alernative Theatres" to "Raggedy Ass Theatres," the word seemed to belong more to itself, as a rough image of who these companies were and what they did: scavengers outside the system, filching what they needed to get by, building an army of many out of something small and hidden.

Word about the Iowa conference spread, and before long a second conference was organized, and then a third. In August of 1995, the Annex Theatre hosted a three-day gathering at their second-story space in Seattle. It continued the conversation begun in Iowa, with many new voices joining in, and added to the mix scam sessions, seminars on the realities of producing big theatre on the cheap: how to develop extravagant effects without expending resources, how to keep your company afloat. On Leap Day weekend this year came the Minneapolis conference, described by co-host Wendy Knox as "a mid-winter think tank." Smaller in size than Seattle, it enabled those RATs who had barely gotten acquainted at the larger event to gain a deeper sense of each other as artists and colleagues. As Gaby Schafer of Thieves Theatre, says, "It was this oft-neglected conference that Thieves Theatre found to be especially successful in what it perceives to be another of RAT's potentials: finding particularly like-minded individuals who challenge and inform the specific work you do, something that Thieves found in Frank Theatre, for example. We initially met Frank at the Seattle conference, but only in Minneapolis did we find our common ground."

An Austin get-together was only a matter of time. At the first gathering in Iowa, five of the 20 companies represented were from Austin. Two of those groups also made it to the Seattle conference, along with a handful of other Austinites. In an electronic dialogue about RAT that has continued in e-mail messages and on the inevitable RAT web site (http://www.rat.whirl-i-gig.com), Salvage Vanguard Theater's Jason Neulander has been a prominent voice. As Mitchell Gossett of the Los Angeles theatre company Bottom's Dream puts it, Austin companies have "always maintained a high profile in the alliance. There's a lot to be learned from Austin."

The idea of congregating here at a time when the air scorches one's lungs was not as certain, but once the proposal to meet here in August was put forth in the e-mail forum, it gathered momentum so quickly that it seemed to make a kind of twisted sense. If you're going to meet in Minnesota in February, why not Texas in August? Given the kinds of challenges that RATs routinely put up with, it's just another brick in the wall.

Beginning in April, a small gang of Austin artists, led by Neulander and Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre's Vicky Boone -- the two local veterans of both the Iowa and Seattle conferences -- started developing a plan for what was being called the "RatRave." The name sprang from a desire on the part of a number of RATs to get away from what they feared was becoming a predictable -- and possibly even deathly dull -- format for the RAT gatherings: get in a room and talk, talk some more, and then talk some more. It wasn't that these folks disputed the value of the dialogue at the previous conferences or were looking to stifle any future conversations; it was that they were ready to get off their duffs and do some work. And to see the other RATs work. The plain geography of the situation was such that most RATs lived too far from each other to be able to see any of the theatre they actually produced. This was a gap in their ability to share their ways of working. The Austin RATs felt it was important for them to give those traveling here a way around that.

They solicited ideas for workshops, invited RATs to bring plays to read and works in progress to rehearse. The response was, as it frequently is with RAT, immediate. If they don't like something, RATs will tell you with a speed that will singe your ears. And sometimes when they like something, they'll tell you that quickly, too. This idea they liked, and they flooded Neulander's e-mailbox with offers. The final schedule includes 16 workshops, ranging from the straightforward ("How to Produce on Someone Else's Set," from Rosalyn Rosen of Austin) to the esoteric ("Pseudofinal Dance and Marginal, Out-of-Arena Pseudostart Dances Rehearsal," from David Chikhladze of the Republic of Georgia); the philosophical ("What We Talk About When We Talk About Poverty," by Mr. Ehn) to the infiltrational ("Whim Vendors," from Thieves Theatres' Schafer and Nick Fracaro). A half-dozen readings are also on tap. (Note: All RatRave activities are free and open to the public. For a recorded schedule of events, call 478-3554. For updates, call 474-5926.)

This new thrust in RAT gatherings has generated reactions as varied as one might expect from such a bunch of devotedly iconoclastic artists. Gajdusek expects the Austin confab will be great. "We tried doing it by the book and wound up frustrated. I think that people will be much more willing to just get up and walk somewhere more interesting if the conversation turns dull," he says. Moreover, he adds, "People are bringing work. That means I get to walk around and see work by people I want to see work from." Wendy Knox, who's coming down from Minneapolis, is more guarded: "I'm feeling mixed about the Austin gig. I'm not at all interested in the weather, a similar feeling to those who stayed away from the Leap Day Fest. I'm not particularly interested in `workshops,' although perhaps my mind will be changed. " Still, she adds, "I am interested in seeing the few folks that I connected with in Seattle, and in meeting others. I look forward to interesting conversation, discussion, arguments, and beer. "

Knox's words provide substantial clues as to why RATs are willing to travel cross-country and brave even a blazing Austin August to be together. Even when there are differences of opinion about when or where an event will happen, what activities are scheduled, or the direction of a discussion, there is an undercurrent of shared interest, of a bond, and something to be gained. Sometimes it may be profound; Mitch Gossett says, "Every time I go to a RAT conference, I learn something that propels my theatre in huge ways. The RAT conference has been the most significant development to my theatre since I decided to form it. The ideas and inspiration and connections have completely turned my theatre around." Sometimes it's less profound, but equally meaningful. When asked what he hopes to get out of the RatRave, Gajdusek replies, "Three interesting artistic experiences, four discussions, one kiss, two hangovers, and seven anecdotes worthy of telling to non-theatre people."

There's something to that, and if the RatRave can provide as much to all its attendees, it can be deemed a major success. There is no last word on RAT -- how could there be given the varying attitudes within it and the persistent insistence on its mutability? -- but some word is needed for the end of this article, so we'll turn again to Karl Gajdusek, who offers a savvy reflection on what RAT is and is not. "My take on RAT is fairly antagonistic to definition and purpose," he admits. "RAT is not my community service, not my church, and not my home. When it's good, it's a fast-paced salon for expression by a bunch of choose-to-be-broke, Nineties-competitive, mean and witty, bitchy and delicious artists. RAT should not be boring and RAT should not have a use. RAT may change the world, if it can just avoid trying to." n The RatRave in the Heat Wave will be held Aug 8-11 at The Public Domain and other downtown spaces.

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