What was RAT? RAT was a sort of a kind of a thing.
Its key players were playwright Erik Ehn, and Nick Fracaro and Gaby Schafer (formerly of Thieves Theatre, now of International Culture Lab [www.intlculturelab.org]). This extremely informal entity (founded 1994) organized annual conferences of indie theatre artists, sponsored an online user-group called the RAT-list long before such things were common, and acted as a sort of general gadfly to whatever Sacred Cows they could sink their teeth into.
I always sort of hovered around the entity, stuck my toe in, but never quite jumped off the diving board. While I participated in the New York conference in 1997, I stopped short of actually saying anything at meetings, or joining in theatre games. Since I had cast myself in the role of observer anyway, I opted to cover subsequent RAT Conferences in Philadelphia (2001) and San Francisco (2002) for American Theatre and the Village Voice. The final one was held in Argentina in 2003, and since then the RAT has been asleep, though its constituent members have been quite active at their own pursuits.
RAT served an excellent function in its own right, but it also possessed a great deal of unfulfilled potential. Most importantly, it connected people from small, radical theatres all over the country, turning them into pen pals (and occasionally pen antagonists), colleagues, and often genuine friends. The network it created joined previously isolated (often embattled) artists from around the country, all of whom faced similar trials – not just economic and artistic ones, but metaphysical ones. When the whole world seems to be telling your indie theatre it has no right to exist, it’s nice to get an e-mail from a friend in Minneapolis or Miami who also has no right to exist. This is where the RATlist and the RAT Conferences are sorely missed. They provided a centralized communications platform that brought people together. While there’s plenty of activity on the web now, and plenty of professional theatre groups…I don’t know any entity that is actively linking renegade experimental theatres on a national level. RAT did that for almost a decade; now there’s a vacuum.
This linking function is also what points up the unfullfilled potential. Since so many connections were made over the years, there grew the inevitable talk about formalization and structure. It seemed natural to many that the next step that should be taken was a sort of circuit, a cooperative arrangement whereby small theatre groups could tour to other cities, crash at the houses of their hosts and perform in their theatres, then return the favor by hosting visiting groups at their own venues and houses themselves. Apparently, this had happened some at the individual level. But the potential was there for something really amazing…a sort of nationwide network of indie theatre safehouses, with a sharing of resources that would make otherwise impossible tours economically feasible. With all the communications tools at our command now, such a thing is definitely possible.
But the problem became: “Who will do it?” Ehn himself proved a most frustrating leader, because he didn’t want to be one. While the group had come together initially at his suggestion, and members were to drawn to his side to listen to his enigmatic, koan-like pronouncements, playing the role of theorist and prophet was really the extent of what he was willing to do. Furthermore, there was a sort of antipathy, not just on Erik’s part, toward the idea of anyone taking on a genuine leadership role. The group was “anti-leader”, meant to sort of cohere organically, naturally, democratically and anarchistically. But, as any natural scientist can tell you, any social species that congregates does so around a leader. The bees have a queen, the gorillas have a silverback, and the geese fly in their V behind a lead goose. Absent someone willing to exercise centralized guidance, the result is inertia and diffusion.
Many people worked long and hard at making RAT happen, none more so than Nick and Gaby. For example, the meticulous chronicle of those days still to be found online [www.ratconference.com] is their doing. And truth to tell, they were always the real reason I ever had anything to do with RAT. I came to New York originally with a lot of visions fueled by second-hand paperbacks of absurdist plays and books about the original off-off-Broadway of the 1960s. I rather foolishly came to the city expecting that the adventurous aesthetics of those times had taken hold somehow, that at least — in this city of infinite variety and freedom – they were to be found somewhere. That was not the case. Oh, there was something called off-off-Broadway, but the aesthetics of the time had moved on. What dominated on stages of the time were autobiographical, identity-based performance art; ethnic folk performance; rather antiseptic Marxist deconstruction; and infatuation with technology. My experimental one-act plays, influenced by Beckett and early Sam Shepard, were very much out of step with the times. [The one remaining thread to the past, the Ridiculous, remained in flower, however, and would flower more still. This is another story, to be elaborated upon in another post].
The Thieves Theatre were the first people I ever encountered who possessed something like my idealism and disregard for the existing market — even the off-off-Broadway market. Their most famous project had involved living in a teepee at the base of the Manhattan Bridge for nine months. Their name, ‘Thieves Theatre” is an homage to Jean Genet, an actual thief in addition to being an actual playwright, and was tantalizingly close to the name of my theatre “Mountebanks”. We both romanticized this association between being actors and living outside society as “criminals”. We shared a love also of Artaud, and the latter’s belief that theatre should be harrowing, traumatic, hallucinatory, metaphysical – it should resemble childbirth, and the horrors of war, and it should point the way toward the obliteration of the self that is sex. Onstage and off, I seek grotesques: clowns, strippers, transvestites, physical freaks…and those, like magicians and acrobats who bend reality…and only those writers, actors, singers, dancers and musicians, who approach magicians and acrobats in their ability to warp reality in that way.
For me, Nick Fracaro is like that. What most people haven’t understood about Nick in particular is the quotes he puts around “criminal”. He is one of my most cherished colleagues and friends – and he is grossly misunderstood by a lot of people. Public discourse is a kind of performance, and in this arena, Nick holds nothing back. He is the king of the Jeremiad, the harangue, and the 2 a.m. jag. If he were in congress, he would be in charge of the filibusters. But unlike most such talkers, he is not a bore. He has the passion of a tiger. He is like John Brown. I personally find it thrilling, but many have felt threatened by him. Frankly, I’ve always felt it was a middle class hang-up that creates the gap in understanding. Nick and I both come from the Lower Depths. Where I come from, the grown-ups would have drunken, loud, out of control conversations (sometimes, arguments, sometimes fights) until the wee hours of the morning. It’s called living life. Nick has been a teetotaler for many years, and he’s never actually assaulted anyone that I’ve ever heard of (except maybe their ears), but that’s beside the point. I’d much rather embrace somebody who’s passionate about what I’m passionate about – and mix it up with him – then avoid the conversation. Some say that Nick is nuts. I say that he is colorful – which happens to be the opposite of grey.
Gaby (Nick’s wife) seems less radical at first, but when she starts going, you see the light of fanatical fervor come out of her eyes as well, and you realize why the two of them are together. The two of them seem to be working hard at legitimizing at the moment (with some other partners) with the International Cultural Laboratory. But then, what could be more idealistic than saying your small company is the “Laboratory” for “International Culture”? That’s a tall order!
H’m…but on the other hand… if someone were to create an international RAT…