August 8, 1996 AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Artists Descend in Search of Big, Cheap Performance
Rat rave in the heat wave
by Michael Barnes

Oh, to be concealed in the curtains when Franceís greatest playwright attended the theater for the first time, or the moment a Russian doctor-turned-author first broke bread with the most influential acting teacher of all time.

Did Moliere and Anton Chekhov recognize their future collaborators - Madeleine Bejart and Constantin Stanislavsky - and instantly speak in aesthetic unison? Or, on first meeting, did they puff and whine about skinflint patrons and illiterate critics before quibbling over the espresso bill?

Both sorts of conversations might be overheard this week during the "RAT Rave in the Heat Wave," an Austin assembly of more than 100 theater artists from 37 companies coming from as far away as Georgia (the republic, not the U.S. state).

Whatís a RAT? Some say it stands for "regional alternative theatre," although you will get a withering "alternative to <I>what</I>?" if you ask some participants what this mean. "Experimental theater" is not quite right either, since some constituent artists are as conventional as they come.

Alternative or not, you canít help wondering if some untried playwright will find inspiration in an unheralded actress, or a gifted amateur will forge a lifetime alliance with an influential teacher while in Austin.

My own time-tripping daydream: Meeting the pioneers of the American regional theater movement during the early 1950s. The best biographer of this period, Helen Sheehy, cannot confirm if Margo Jones, Nina Vance and Zelda Fichandler ever gathered in one room, but what stories they might have told! Back then, Jones in Dallas, Vance in Houston and Fichandler in Washington D.C. were proving that professional companies could thrive outside New York City.

(Fichandler, by the way, did not actually establish D.C.ís Arena Stage. She assumed control from Ed Mangum, later founder of St. Edwardís Universityís theater program and an Austin resident.)

Would those pioneer women discuss scenic problems inherent in the arena staging they popularized? Would they refer to paper0thin budgets and incipient union disputes? Could they possibly have predicted the huge grants that would boost regional theaters in the 1960s, creating more than 200 companies where none existed before?

Of course, those bloated theaters now face extinction as the umbilical cord of federal subsidy is being cut.

Most of the RAT visitors, leaders of scruffy, smaller theaters, hail from the post-subsidy era; all but one or two were founded after 1980.

Perhaps we could call them "alternative-to-comfortable-seating" theaters.

"I prefer the term Ďraggedy ass theaterí says Vicky Boone, artistic director of Austinís Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre.

Itís a joke. Lighten up, guys.

Suffice it to say, most of the companies represented at the RAT Rave are on the puny end of the spectrum. Many perform in lofts, bars, storefronts and improvised spaces, just about anywhere municipal building inspectors tend to overlook.

During the current, so-called "non-conference," the non-delegates will sample several such Austin spaces - the metal barn-in-a-yard at Planet Theatre, the broken-L vestpocket at Hyde Park, the glorious shell at The Public Domain.

The original Ratsters gathered in Iowa City, Iowa two years ago, partly to discuss collaborations but also to share solutions to common problems in a university setting. Last year, they met at the world headquarters of fringe theater - Seattle - where Austinís 75 or so production companies are multiplied by factors of two or three. A smaller meeting was held in Minneapolis earlier this year.

"In Iowa, we talked about what we have in common," said Steve Moore of Austinís Physical Plant troupe. In Seattle, we discussed what we didnít have in common. Now we are ready to share our art with each other."

Evening performances by Austin companies were scheduled for the Rae and some of the works revived from last winterís FronteraFest, the regionís biggest fringe festival.

What all the RATs share is a mania for theater, even if they disdain more traditional styles of performance, and even if there is little market for what they produce. Over the past three decades, university programs have spawned a population boom among theater graduates. After the initial shock of graduation, many dropped out, others sought their fortunes in professional film, TV or theater.

Still others scraped together what RAT patron saint, playwright Erik Ehn calls "Big Cheap Theater."

This approach should not be confused with hobby theaters that offer cultural uplift to off-duty plumbers and dentists (no offense intended to plumbers and dentists). Since 1900, these community-little-civic theaters have made drama bloom where none had grown before. Yet in most cities, like Austin, they are designed for the enjoyment of participants, not general theatergoers, and their productions usually pale next to professional and semi-professional efforts.

The RAT troopers are not mere hobbyists. All appear conversant in theory, knowledgeable, if now always exacting, regarding craft. Most of all, they seem willing to sacrifice <I>everything</I> to share their artistic visions with the world.

Why gather in Austin in August? Could they pick a worse time, when sidewalks glow like griddle and air conditioning canít suck the heat from your matted hair? (While weíre at it, two other arts gatherings are in town: "Texas Dance Conference" and Texas Commission on the Artsí Cultural Connections III." See report on page 54. Are these people <I>crazy</I>?

"People like it, in part, for the perversity of it," said Austin Chronicle critic Robert Faires. "This is a perverse group in that they work under arduous conditions, so they agreed Ďletís meet under arduous conditions.í And Austin in August certainly qualifies. I think Ehn said ĎIt could be a purifying experience, like going to a sweat lodge.í"

Most of the attendees come from second-tier theater cities: Minneapolis, San Diego, Seattle, Denver, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Washington D.C., with a sprinkling from New York and Los Angeles. Nobody seems to know why <I>two</I> companies from the Republic of Georgia are represented.

No telling if the RAT network will mirror Theater Communications Group, the longtime organization for larger professional theaters. Several RAT troupes are members of that group as well, yet others are adamantly opposed to formal ties.

"TCG represents institutional theaters," said Emily Cicchini, associate director of Capitol City Playhouse. "But the lines bleed between RAT and TCG."

In the end, RAT is about communication. Woven into the Rave are sessions called "Terra Incognita," open time slots for informal discussions. And the groupís web site - http://www.unsers.interport.net/~thieves - is popular with browsers. In the past two years, many artists have shuttled among RAT theaters, creating an underground for cross-country creativity.

Austin organizers are hoping to show off Austinís active scene. "For us, itís a chance to show off our space," said director Robi Polgar of The Public Domain, 807 Congress Ave., headquarters for Rave workshops. "We want people to cut loose so anything can happen."

"My experience is we will hang out, drink beer and talk to people who have interests similar to ours," said Boone.

"Really, this is the antithesis of a conference," said chief local organizer Jason Neulander o f Salvage Vanguard Theater. "Iíd call it an anti-conference."