August 19, 1997 VILLAGE VOICE
We're gonna take on Disney," announces C.J. Hopkins, a ponytailed playwright ad cofounder of Monkey Wrench Theater. He's sitting with a group of scrappy theater artists in the HERE cafe‚ on a sultry summer afternoon. They eat cookies, chain-smoke, and chat about the coming theatrical revolution. "We're talking about them paying workers 23 cents an hour, their sweatshop conditions... Times Square needs to be attacked. Anyway, there's a bunch of ideas floating around. There was some talk about a street action, but Brad doesn't think that's a good idea "
"I said 42nd Street wasn't a good idea," interjects Brad Rothbart, the bespectacled, long-haired, soft-spoken onetime Living Theatre-ite. "You can't be heard on 42nd Street."
"And there's the issue of it being a bust piece " Hopkins continues. "What's a bust piece?" one of the participants asks. "You get arrested," another says. "Ohhh..." "I'm sure a bust piece makes sense," Hopkins says. "It's become almost a clich‚, and it's a formula that's instantly recognizable. But we're open to suggestions. Does anyone have any ideas?"
General pandemonium suddenly breaks loose, with pockets of the group all excitedly talking at once. Hopkins turns to the reporter sitting beside him. "Hey," he says. "What are you writing?"
Welcome to a meeting of the Rats, a loose amalgamation of experimental theater artists from across the country. Part craft guild, part Kafe Klatch, and part radical political organization, Rat gnaws at the establishment which includes everything from traditional nonprofit theater to the American corporate capitalist culture. Nobody knows exactly how many Rats there are in the U.S., since they spend much of their time conversing in the virtual world of the Internet and only meet in the flesh once a year at their "conferences" wild and woolly affairs that are as much an excuse to party as they are to discuss the possibilities of coproduction. Still, "membership" is estimated at over a hundred. Ironically, this year, from August 15-24, these mangy anarchic creatures are planning to plague the capitalist center of the free world: The Rat Fest(ation) is coming to New York.
Just who are the Rats? It's hard to say and indeed, it's their very ambiguity that make them attractive. Four years into their existence, the Rats may have intentionally not defined themselves, but they are fairly clear about what they aren't. They aren't institutional. They aren't traditional. They aren't officially nonprofit. They aren't even an organization, for Christ's sake. They have no staff. They have no board. They have no structure. They have no logo. They have no official membership. If you don't have cash and you're doing theater, you're a Rat.
Rat evolved from a 1993 Yale Theater journal article by playwright Erik Ehn titled "Toward Big Cheap Theater." Ehn lamented the fact that experimental theaters around the country are "geographically and financially isolated from one another, [struggling] separately when they could be struggling together." Ehn glorified a style of theater that was based on volunteerism pretty much the way this kind of rough-and-tumble theater is normally created, with artists supporting themselves and their work by "day jobs." But the crux of Ehn's argument is that these types of theater practitioners should turn their backs on the traditional capitalistic ambition of American culture (and, by extension, the American theater), and instead practice social activism by embracing their poverty.
In December 1994, less than a year after Ehn's article, the first annual Rat conference was held at the University of Iowa. A handful of theater artists got together to trade thoughts, ideas, and aesthetics. Though they initially refused to name themselves, Rat eventually stuck. The image of a nasty little critter suited them, as did the possible acronyms ("Resident Alternative Theaters," "Rogues in American Typecasting," or "Raggedy-Assed Theaters"). Other conferences, one in Seattle, another in Austin, followed.
Across the country, companies as diverse as Generation X-led theaters like Salvage Vanguard in Austin and Seattle's Annex, and Washington, D.C.'s more established and overly respectable if only in Rat terms Woolly Mammoth have responded to Rat with giddy excitement. And it's easy to see why. As I start looking into the Rat phenomenon reading the provocative discussions on the online Ratlist, attending planning sessions in New York, and talking with individual Rats from around the country I find myself getting caught up in the excitement. In this post-NEA world, here are folks who are embracing a new way. In a time when cynicism is rampant and the world seems commodified beyond repair, here is a movement that is turning its back on all that: celebrating iconoclastic individualism and yet reaching out to make connections.
In the past few months, however, something peculiar's been going on. E-mail discussions have degenerated into petty debates. Power struggles have taken place. Threats have even been made. The pressure of doing a conference in New York City have been blamed, but the real problem might dwell in the Rats' anarchic attitude toward structure.
Arguably, one of the reasons most organizations opt for clearly spelled-out structures and chains of command is that they can focus on mission rather than process. And this is where the inherent contradiction lies. The Rats are a mangy group of theater artists who have opted out of the product- and profit-oriented world of conventional theater, believing that process matters. So what happens when a ruleless, populist theater group professes to be open to anyone, but then adds this caveat: As long as you're like us? Are some Rats more equal than others?
It is early in the morning when I telephone Erik Ehn in San Francisco, but "the dean of the movement" is happy to talk about his impulse in writing the original article. "I'd been thinking about the silliness of art," he says. "Theater will never be an efficient means of making or distributing money. Or even an efficient way of spending money. I guess I wanted to see a more radically different inefficient theater."
That's fine, but Ehn's next step voluntary poverty seems just a little disingenuous. "Voluntary poverty means you're coming from a position of privilege, wouldn't you say?" I ask Ehn. "Oh, yeah," he answers. "It's extremely entitled. It's probably not impossible for a person who's materially poor to make the remarkable choice of renouncing goods, but it probably is a pretty middle-class thing."
"So would you say that Rat is a middle-class phenomenon?" Ehn is quiet for a moment. "It wouldn't surprise me."
Self-examination is nothing new to the Rats indeed, they have been squabbling among themselves since the very first conference. However, things seem different now. The problems started via the Ratlist, the e-mail list created by Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer of Thieves Theatre that was devised a an ingenious way for the artists to stay in touch with one another between annual conferences. In theory, it'' supposed to be an open forum, where anyone can throw out thoughts or ideas. But there's a darker side to the list. Often, onesided rants, personal attacks, and curiously old-fashioned manifestos squeeze out genuine discussion. One rabid Rat put it this way: "There's this incredibly lame, masturbatory My dick's bigger than your dick' mentality."
Late last fall, the fur flew when it was suggested that the conference take place in New York. On the surface, it seemed like a fine idea. Robert Lyons of Soho Think Tank offered the Ohio Theatre as a base of operations, and Kristin Mating of Tiny Mythic followed suit with HERE. But before this happened, some Rats suggested joining forces with the First Annual New York International Fringe Festival, which was already scheduled for this August.
Tempers soared. People freaked. The Fringe was too ambitious. The Fringe represented the establishment. The Fringe was commercial. The Fringe sucked.
John Clancy, one of the Fringe Festival's artistic directors, made overtures to the Rats, asking if they wanted to get involved with the festival, and in return was dissed and even likened to Time Warner, Satan, and Leni Riefenstahl. One Rat who make his like particularly unbearable was Mary Feast, a shadowy theater artists from Coney Island and compadre of Fracaro and Schafer's. Sometimes Mary would taunt Clancy, sometimes she'd ridicule him, and occasionally she'd be downright threatening ("I'll suck your tiny ambitious soul into the whirl and place it in a gypsy jar"). In early May, after months of antagonism, Clancy and the Fringe gave up on the Rats.
Sometimes a Rat eats its own tail: After Clancy disappeared, Mary started directing her vitriol at other members on the Ratlist. When voices of moderation popped up pleading for a little civility, Mary would humiliate them. Feelings were hurt, and a few Rats publicly unsubscribe themselves, writing thing like "May we never have to deal with Rat again."
Things were spiraling out of control. Rumors were flying about Mary, the most pervasive being that she was a fictional creation of Fracaro and Schafer. Even some Rats had had it with Mary Feast. Hopkins, who had more than a few tussle with both Mary and Fracaro, outed her as well. "I don't think you exist in the real world," he wrote. "I believe you are a kind of VR Cop Mask being used by someone to chase a way any new folks who do not conform to official Rat behavior guidelines."
On a warm July evening, I meet with Fracaro and Schafer at their house in Brooklyn. After spending months watching all the online nastiness, much of it generated from the Thieves' e-mail address, I'm a bit wary. The feeling's obviously mutual. Fracaro has called me a couple times to feel me out and it's obvious he doesn't trust me. He wants to know what I'm going to write and worries that I'm going to trash the Rats (I am, after all, writing for that establishment rag, The Village Voice).
In the backyard, Fracaro sits, arms crossed and avoiding eye contact, and Schafer carefully weighs every word she says. The clearest indication that they distrust me? The tape recorder they set up on the table and then disingenuously dismiss, saying, "We might want to use it for something."
The Thieves have been involved with Rat since its inception. They've worked on Rat's behalf setting up the Web site, maintaining the Ratlist, and now helping to organize the New York meeting with a devotion that borders on the evangelical.
I ask them about Mary Feast. "Who is she? A lot of people think she's coming out of this house." "That's basically like asking whether you sleep with somebody or something," Fracaro says belligerently. "If I tell you something about Mary... It's like ... why? I mean, who are you? I know who Mary is and I can betray Mary if I want, but why should I do that for know who Mary is and I can betray Mary if I want, but why should I do that for you?"
But isn't it a bit cowardly, I ask, to anonymously slam people while hiding behind a virtual persona? "It's Mary's art," Fracaro is steamed. "This is her art. You have your art and that's part of your integrity. But for you now to judge Mary's art as not having integrity I'd have to disagree with that. I think it has a great deal of integrity."
On June 2, Mary Feast left the Ratlist. Whoever she was, she is, for now, history. For a while things settle down on the list. Conference plans go ahead. The tempest seems to have passed. Organizational meetings are positive, though a little tense, with Fracaro and Hopkins on opposite sides of the table. Meanwhile, two new up-and-coming Rats, Jonathan Pascoe and Joshua Furst, blithely pup in new energy, offering New York Theatre Workshop as a third venue. they are organizing Ratso's Ratchet, which, if all works according to plan, will be a week's worth of 200 three-minute plays. This, unlike many of the other Rat Conference events, is open to the public.
That's not to say that there still aren't occasional conflagrations on the list. Schafer and Fracaro transcribe and post portions of my interview with them (in a challenge to "the Voice of authority"). At another point, when Brad Rothbart tentatively suggests in a posting that disagreements could be "settled censensually and no one leaving the room until everyone can live with the decision," he is met with hoots and derision. "Fat chance, brother," someone replies.
Then, a week and a half before the conference, just when it looks like things have settled down, I get a phone call from Julia Barklay, Hopkins's partner at Monkey Wrench Theater. "We quit," she says. "We don't believe in whatever's going on. Rat may not be the Ratlist, but that's the public face, and we can't stand it anymore. We're sick of seeing people constantly attacked. Look," she continues, "we're a new company, and that last thing we need is to associate with this nonsense."
Ironically, Barclay and Hopkins bow out at almost the exact same moment that Fracaro and Schafer publicly unsubscribe from the Ratlist. "It's time for Thieves Theatre to shut up," says Schafer when I call her. "We've got big mouths. We've been trying to engage people in discussions and it's not working."
Where has this sudden penitent attitude come from? Schafer claims it's from a perceived lack of interest in new discussions often about this article on the list. Since those attacked haven't risen to the bait, it looks like the Thieves have (as one Rat wrote on e-mil) "taken their toys and gone home."
Most of the Rats prefer to be on, as Soho Think Tank's Robert Lyons puts it, "a higher moral ground" when it comes to these kinds of turf battles and personality conflicts. It doesn't affect their basic reason for being involved with Rat, best described by Peculiar Works Project's Catherine Porter: "(a) Meet a lot of new people, (b) have a good time, and (c) maybe make some connections." To most of the Rats, Mary Feast is nothing but a sideshow hardly a big deal. And they'll be able to think that for a while. But prickly, alternative voices (perhaps even their own) will inevitably want to be heard from time to time, and will try to guide the Rats into new and unchartered directions. At this point, because of the Rats' suspicion of authority and organization, there's not any infrastructure to deal with these folks when they appear, except through threats, intimidation, and ridicule.
There's a lot of potential to Rat, but potential, like process isn't enough. There's also a lot of talk about socialism and anarchy, but nobody ever mentions democracy. And that worries me, because without some basic democratic principles, I'm afraid the Rats will self-destruct in the same manner as the movement their members often like to equate themselves to: the Dadaists. An art movement that lasted only seven years (1916 to 1924), Dada was part cult, part politics, and part high school pranks a sophomoric and nihilistic reaction to world War I. Once the roaring, decadent 20s came around, the movement's insolent, negative style had not only torn itself apart through similar bickering among members but also become largely irrelevant. Henri Lefebvre probably summed it up best when he wrote in 1924, "As Dada moves to escape all definitions, its negation defines itself all too powerfully as its own negation." He could have been writing about the Rats in 1997.