December, 1996, Jan, Mar/April 1997 issues OFF
I used to think that mysterious manuscripts dropped at doorsteps-- the literary equivalent of Moses in the rushes-- happened only in Victorian novels or tabloid exposes. And yet one afternoon, coming home from work I found a wad of binder-clipped papers had been shoved through the mail slot of my apartment door. Titled The Great Rat vs. Fest Debate, it was, I discovered, a collection of several dozen e-mails from members of an entity known as RAT or the Rat Conference -a new theatrical phenomenon I had vaguely heard of-about the First New York International Fringe Festival. Reading through the "debate" (excerpted in the following pages), I realized that the American culture wars I d read about in newspapers and magazines-armies of fundamentalist zealots massed against the effete and corrupt Pharisees of the Eastern liberal establishment-were already underway in alternative theater.
Why the political cant? After all, theater artists are in the business of irrelevancy, of mattering less in the national discourse than peanut butter, forever consigned to the fringe of popular entertainment. There may be some lip service and hysteria in the halls of government about national heritage or the corruption of our nation's morals, but for the most part practitioners of what we fondly call "alternative theater" are effectively excused from the idiocy of practical politics.
But the same schisms you find in politics repeat in our arts. There will always be a pecking order of the little guy despising the big guy. Pick any point in the history of America, and you ll find a deep anarcho-utopian strain running through the national consciousness like a rat in a maze. It s Jefferson's 20-year itch. The system must be overthrown; find the system. There are players, reformers, and outright anarchists. No matter which camp, the relation to the enemy is the same mindless opposition. Thus the mainstream can t help but spawn the same breed of superficially varied anarchists-the Michigan militia, East Village "trustafarians", and yes, the Rat Conference.
First of all: who are the RATs? The Rat Conference was begun by San Franciscan playwright Eric Ehn in late 1993 with a notice in Yale's Theater magazine for a network of independent theater artists to operate "below radar". Several groups across the country responded, and the first Rat Conference took place at the University of Iowa in December 1994. Since then, Rats (the name is more a statement of being than an acronym) have convened in Seattle and Austin, discussing and brain-storming on every aspect of producing great theater with no money and no ulterior goal of mainstream acceptance.
RAT is not organized like a theater group or theater association. It s not based in any city or with any group; it has no staff and no logo. It does not put on "RAT" shows, but members can organize festivals; besides attending conferences, members of RAT network for artistic and technical collaborations, helping tours, lending equipment, and the like.
Anyone can be a Rat: if you re poor and you do theater, you already are one. In this way Ehn catalyzed what was already in existence, but no one had bothered to nurture. Nonorganizational, noncommercial, and non-ideological, RAT constitutes a segment of theater artists that is often lost in the din of Broadway, the bustle of urban experimental theater, and the wheezing zombitude of artistically stagnant regional theater. Today the Rat Conference includes theater artists from as far away as Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia, to New York s own Thieves Theatre and the Monkey Wrench Theatre.
The First New York International Fringe Festival (NYIFF), happening next summer, is being organized by the Present Company's artistic director John Clancy, NADA artistic director Aaron Beall, and playwright Jonathan Harris. It will be a first for the downtown scene, presenting over 100 national and international theater companies in 15 venues all over the Lower East Side. Ticket sales, the producers say, should reach the tens of thousands. Unlike the Edinburgh Fringe and the Seattle Fringe, participation in the NYIFF is dependent on juried selection and a $350 application fee to cover technical assistance and administrative costs.
While attracting a lot of attention and excitement in the theater community, the NYIFF has raised the ire of some Rats, who vehemently disapprove of the juried process. In the e-mail excerpts that follow (edited for brevity and narrative zing) you ll journey in the collective mind of the Rats, and see the reasonable and unreasonable arguments, distrust of New York as commercial and crass, and the unmistakable whiff of that ole provincial hell-raising spirit.
All art, a friend of mine says, is about the relationship between the artist and the City. I agree, looking at some great examples: Dante cursing Florence from afar, Shakespeare's far-flung locales which always resembled London; Joyce's universal Dublin. By extension, let's say all battles among artists are about the tortured relationship between artist-citizens and the City.
For some of us, it's self-evident that the best art will happen in the best cities. And, though the consensus is ebbs and flows on this, the best city is New York.
Once the untamed wilderness was viewed as the repository of all sin and permissiveness; now that burden of iniquity has been shifted to our centers of civilization. Now it is the heartland where honest men and women have to daily fight against the encroachments of a hostile government, while the cities which fester on either coast like gangrenous limbs threaten to infect the rest of the country. Sure, this view is unsurprising among the gun-toting yahoos in their Idaho enclaves and the politicians who want their votes, but what happens when artists start thinking this way?
So without further ado, we present the Great Rat v. Fest Debate! Much thanks to Mary Feast of The Harlequins, the mysterious stranger who delivered the manuscript at dead midnight amidst divers perils.
Date: Mon, 7 Oct 1996 From: Gabriele Schafer firstname.lastname@example.org (Thieves Theatre) Subject: this and that
Finally, we Thieves would just like to say how successful we think this last conference was once again. It occurred to us that these get-togethers are very important. They re kind of like family reunions--beforehand you re sort of wondering why it s necessary to have another one already. Then afterward you wonder why you ever hesitated....In that regard, there is one particular thing that has come up on which we really would like to get a good dialogue going and make some decisions ASAPossible: New York City is going to have its First International Fringe Festival next year. It will take place in August 97, last about two weeks, and the people organizing it would very much like to have RAT involved on some level. After the general Fringe Fest meeting, three NYC Rats--Peculiar Works Project, Thieves Theatre, and the recently dethroned Rat Czarina, Ruth Margraff--got together to discuss the idea and here are some Points, Q&As and Pros & Cons that we came up with and on which we d like your input:
QUESTION: In many ways New York represents the antithesis of RAT, especially in its showcase mentality. RAT is Big Cheap Theater, not advertising exercises or wannabe theater.
ANSWER: There should be a RAT contingency in NYC that confronts the fact that what its theaters are doing is not showcasing.
(sore) POINT: The NYC Fringe Festival will be the first "juried" fringe fest. In other words, a committee will decide which applicants will participate. RAT is inclusive, not exclusive. Rat is based on abundance, not scarcity. We have already mentioned this to the producers and they understand and would work with us on that (like maybe leaving a number of slots open to any Rat that wanted to perform in the fest).
QUESTION: the Austin RatRave with its abundance of performance and workshops showed that the Rat Conference is potentially THE Fringe Fest of the future. Simply holding the Rat Conference--in New York or anywhere--creates its own fringe fest.
ANSWER: So why not do it in New York next August. What s the difference?
QUESTION: Who are these 60 theaters forming the NYC fringe and why haven t they attended a RAT Conference?
ANSWER: They haven t heard of Rat. This would be a good opportunity for Rat to spread its word to the potentially like minded and like any good word, it should be spread to convert as many as possible instead of stealing it away for yourself.
PRO: There is an opportunity for theaters to perform in New York and get help in doing so. CON: Even with help, there are some things, like housing, that are bound to still be a problem which theaters may have to solve themselves. PRO: We d be in New York with everything that makes New York, New York.
CON: We d be in New York with everything that makes New York, New York.
POINT: Unlike our other Rat Conference venues thus far, New York as a theater city is fraught with a lot of baggage, not all of which is pretty. But just as we Thieves welcome a reason to go to Iowa City, Seattle, Minneapolis and Austin, others might welcome a reason to come to New York and should be able to say so. Heck, it s a great and important city and a part of us would like to welcome you here just as many of you have welcomed us proudly to your home...
Date: Tue, 8 Oct 1996 From: Jason Neulander email@example.com (Salvage Vanguard Theater) Subject: Re: this and that
It s about time! I have at least ten places I could stay in New York next August. SO, I ll be there for sure. Curious to know if other people are responding. Bottom line, frankly, is that anyone who disparages a city is simply jealous. What fun it would be to have a fringe to the fringe.
I wholly agree that the juried thing is problematic. I can only imagine that it is because space is so hard to find. Or does someone think they have the inside scoop on what makes "good" art? Hell, if Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were to apply, wouldn t that inherently make it "fringe"? Or is this group trying to somehow "legitimize" art that is not the mainstream. Wouldn t that legitimization make it mainstream by definition (particularly if the Times got involved, which I am sure they will).
On the other hand, I have no problem with the notion of showcasing. If you can t get feedback from your peers, who can you get feedback from? Isn t all theater in a sense a showcase? Aren't we just showing off? I mean, who in theater doesn t have the need to exhibit. Isn t that what got us into theater in the first place? Which brings up another question for me: is there a correct reason to showcase. What makes one showcase okay and another self-indulgent?
Date: Tue, 8 Oct 1996 From: Steve Cosson (Smart Mouth Theatre) LVhouten@aol.com Subject: RE: NYC Fringe ...regarding the New York idea--I for one would be interested in presenting some work in the Big Apple, though I think presenting at the festival under a Rat umbrella is kind of a dubious proposition. For one, it seems a little clubby--doing so would identify "members", right? As in, you mentioned in the Thieves e-mail that there might be "Rat" slots since we re non-exclusive. Wouldn t that mean then, that anyone could take them and claim Rat status if we are truly inclusive? So maybe it would be better to encourage the NYC festival people to just have some "first-come-first-served slots" which would then be communicated to RATs. Also, I like the idea of Rat-generated activity at the same time of the NY Fringe Fest. as a way of broadening the dialogue between different theaters. So those are my 3 cents.
Date: Mon, 28 Oct 1996 From: Katie Pearl KDavis4604@aol.com Frontera/Hyde Park Theatre Subject: nuevo yorko in Augusto...
Hello, this is Katie from physical plant and Frontera-HP. these are my ideas re: the NY Fringe Fest...RAT should have its own venue in the festival. A venue in which any theater which wants to align itself with RAT can perform on a first come/call/communicate basis and every performance is free to all. This set-up raises a few questions: 1. Won't it just fill up and many companies who want to won t be able to perform? Well yeah. But we could also consider making it a 24-hour venue (wouldn t that be fucking great!) which would defray the packed-ness of it. 2. Doesn t that just make a separate RAT-fest parallel to the Fringe Fest? Well yeah. 3. Why would the Fringe Fest, then, want to support us (by including the venue in their venue maps and schedules and best of | competitions and all)? Well... because I got the impression that the Festival was interested in supporting the RAT phenomenon, without needing a ratty return. is this true? What will they get from us? Just another facet to their Festival. RAT is a version of fringe, certainly, but in my mind operates in certain ways that make it a subset, or separate set...
Date: Tuesday, 29 Oct 1996 From: John Clancy (Present Company) PresentCo@aol.com Subject: Fwd: NYIFF
My name's John Clancy and I m one of the three Artistic Directors of the First Annual New York International Fringe Festival. Here s the deal...the big nasty is that we re jurying the Festival. Highly anti-fringe goes the cry, except when you think about it for a New York minute it s the only way to go here. This city does not need and will not support a first-come, first-served arts festival. Competition for audience is too fierce. What we do believe it needs is an organized forum for all this great new work that s out there and a way of seeing it all as a part of a whole, part of the theatrical renaissance that s happening on the Lower East Side and all over the country... And finally, let s admit it, we want the best stuff around, the most inventive, the most challenging, the funniest, the scariest, the best. Wouldn t you?...So who chooses the best? Well, we do, of course. What qualifies us to pass judgment? Nothing really, except we re really smart and we decided to throw a Festival...
Date: Fri, 1 Nov 1996 From: Mary Feast rat@Whirl-gig.com Subject: RE: NYC
...Golly gee-whiz, Mr. Clancy, us hicks west of the Hudson are just afeared of all you Time Warner producer-types. You know nothing about the "Rat crew" as you dismissively call them, but I ll let them speak for themselves...I'll speak for Mary Feast only here and I ll make this simple. If you woof at me again, smart boy, I ll practice my next theater on you. I ll tie on the red bandana and stalk and haunt your dreams like a succuba. Do you want to know your fear, John Clancy? I'll suck your tiny ambitious soul into the whirl and place it in a gypsy jar. I ll carry it into the field of the Big Hunt. I'll hang you from a tree as bait and wait nearby. Then you ll pray. You ll pray to me, John Clancy, that I don t fall asleep. And then you'll pray to God to wake you from the nightmare. But war is hell, not a nightmare. God and I are hunters, not predators. And you, John Clancy, will be our bait.
Date: Sun, 3 Nov 1996 From: Steve Cosson Smart Mouth Theatre Subject: Has RAT gone mad?
OK, I m getting frightened--RAT e-mails are starting to read like diatribes of the Symbionese Liberation Army. While I m not informed on the details of the NYC Fringe Fest, it really bothers me to read such vitriolic statements...would it be possible to save such nastiness for people who really deserve it, like Jesse Helms? ...I came to a Rat Conference looking for coalitions, allies, and new ideas. I am not interested in picking fights with other theater people, or putting energy into further marginalizing Rat-type companies...
Date: Mon 4 Nov 1996 From: Tony Kelly (Thick Description) firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Re: Has RAT gone mad?
You re not alone, Steve. Right on the mush with this one. I don t mind calling out the Fringe Festival if its goals are less than fringey, but to be trumpeting a ratter-than- thou attitude seems just as false...It s a little sad to me that (having started Thick D in NYC in 88, and left from SF in 89) the words New York still cause all kinds of ego things to ooze on out...Let a thousand festivals bloom, and maybe we ll have folks fighting to be more creative...and every garage and church basement will be more interesting than every theater.
To contribute to the RAT debate, or to learn more about them, visit their Web site: http://rat.whirl-i-gig.com. To contact John Clancy and the office of First Annual New York International Fringe Festival, e-mail email@example.com or call: (212) 307-0229.
Correspond with the editors of OFF at D. Cote, 217 Bowery, NYC 10002 . Phone (212) 777-4195. Fax (212) 245-3429 or J. Woodward, 149 W. 72nd St. #4D, NYC 10023. Phone (212) 873-4352. Fax (212) 873-4352 (call first) e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
by Ben Trovato
I love the chutzpa of six xerox pieces of paper and a staple calling itself "The Journal of Alternative Theater". Why not? A vital journal, like vital theater, is not a function of production cost or institutional affiliation. The non-organization of theaters from around the country known as RAT (Raggedy- Ass Theater), was created in a similar spirit of rough need and fullfillment.
Unique from other theater journals, OFF prints the reflections on theater of playwrights, directors, actors, designers, as well as critics. Perhaps this is a hopeful attempt to break down that ole Artist vs Critic dilemma, but if the review of RAT (Regional Alternative Theater) by OFF is any indication of future direction, the old templates of division, albeit disguised in new chauvinisms, will eventually reassert themselves.
In the December issue of OFF, the editor David Cote "excerpted" the ?edited? email that Mary Feast of the Harlequins "excerpted" from the RAT (Random Access Theater) web page. The Editor authoritatively concludes in this edition that The Rat Conference is only superficially varied from other anarchist groups such as East Village "trustafarians" and the Michigan militia. So now The Editor of The Journal can conclusively categorize and name (with a little help from "the mysterious stranger who delivered the manuscript") the national movement of Alternative Theaters known as RAT (Radical Alternative Theater).
I think Mary Feast and The Harlequins represent one of the extremes of RAT. (I know Mary and the other Carnies at Coney Island personally. I don't presume I can speak for them, and I definitely don't want a curse from Mary to befall on me, but I'm sure they would agree they are an unique theater group and not representative of RAT.) At the very least, it seems irresponsible to make a judgment on this national movement in alternative theater from such a narrow and manipulated perspective. (Another reviewer from The McKinley Group after reading more than just "excerpted" "edited" email on RAT said "an absolutely fascinating series of essays, manifestos, email conferences, and dialogues by theater artists affiliated with small, ''below-the-radar'' theaters who are establishing an alternative network to the institutionalized regional League of Resident theater companies, whose work the RATs see as lethargic and moribund. To read this site is to witness a refreshingly non-technological artistic revolution in the making.")
Mary Feast has an agenda. It's to make the Harlequins voice heard in RAT. I think a group with such a name should spell "disruption," if not trouble, even to the least discerning. Why then is David Cote using only one individual's or group's take on RAT to base his conclusion? (He didn't talk to us, Thieves, or as far as I know, any of the other fifty RAT groups.) Perhaps he, too, has an agenda. There's surely a hint of one when he says "For some of us, it's self-evident that the best art will happen in the best cities. And, though the consensus is ebbs and flows on this, the best city is New York."
It is this kind of (stereotypically NY) chauvinism that RAT is trying to dispel in its linking of like-minded alternative theater workers in cities around the country and the world. And it is this kind of arrogant huff-'n-puffing, incendiary taunting and general cavalier swaggering that Cote conveniently edits out the The Fringe Festival portion of the e-mail exchange, so that RAT reactions not only appear over the top, but don't even make any sense.
Has Cote been to a RAT Conference? Has Cote even read the articles from other journals posted on the RAT web page? Has Cote ever lived in the other great cities in this country with thriving alternative theaters like Seattle, Austin, Chicago, not too mention Toronto and London?
The answers are obvious, as is the fact that "The Journal of Alternative Theater" is a just a clique of downtown NYC artists and critics who wannabe an alternative theater movement. Except that if they'd look anywhere above 14th street or across one of the rivers for other like-minded, they'd probably turn into pumpkinheads like their editor.
The RAT Conference is coming to NYC next August thanks to the support of the network of alternative theater workers who are alive and well in New York. Some of them live and work downtown and off-off, but all of them believe that great art happens because of great artists and their relationship to their community and audience, not because they happen to eat a fresh bagel (or fresh critic) every morning.
by Wendy Knox
Dear David Cote,
I received a copy of your article in OFF, and it set me off. So I've got a few things to respond to, and would like to direct the remarks to you.
Okay, I live in the heartland, the middle of the frozen tundra, a bastion of provincialism, and if your publication is representative of ANY kind of dynamic in the New York alternative theatre, I think I'll stay here. If your article is representative of the kind of thought connected to the alternative art scene in what you call the "best (art) city" in the world, you're in far worse shape than the rest of us out here on the edge. I'm kinda floored by your article, and I kinda wonder who you are, and where you get off writing something like you did. You obviously know know little about art that is connected to a society greater than the one festering in your navel, and even less about this RAT phenom, so I wonder what ever would propel you to write an article about it. That's my personal response to your article, and now let me tiptoe my way through your writing.
"Theatre artists are in the business of irrelevancy..." Well, right there, I shoulda signed off. What theatre artists are you hanging with? What ALTERNATIVE theatre artists are you acquainted with? What the hell are you talking about? Particularly since you claim to be writing an article about RAT, I am at a loss as to why you would flaunt your ignorance. RAT is a compendium of theatre which ran the gamut, some of them far more concerned with politics than others, but in any case the act of banding together under a banner of the alternative implies something in opposition to something else, and I wonder how you can so cavalierly dismiss a political slant to ANY theatre, particularly the alternative theatre. Where you been? You go one to further shove your foot down your mouth with the statement that "practitioners of what we fondly call "alternative theatre" are effectively excused from the idiocy of practical politics." Again, WHERE ARE YOU FROM? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? As an individual artist, as an artistic director, I'm a battle for survival every day. I'm in a battle to preserve a voice every day. And that battle is, without doubt, connected to the society, the country, the political system in which we live--the 'practical politics" that you so graciously excuse me from are an inescapable aspect of my daily life. And you know what, David? I'm not alone. So, what alternative artists are you talking about?
So then we're on to your comparison of the dynamics of the dialogue regarding the Fringe Festival, to the Michigan militia....again, what are you talking about? The fact that you're reading, and editing, and publishing, an incredibly slanted portion of a much larger, feistier discussion about the Fringe Fest again demonstrates how the press (shall I actually include you in that?) manipulates information for its own gratification. Your political analogy is weak--"No matter which camp, the relation to the enemy is the same mindless opposition." What? What? David, dear, pick up a text book. Get a clue. If you're going to attempt to make a grand analogy, at least get a handle on what your talking about. And don't, please, don't extrapolate a good healthy argument about business, aesthetics, identity and art to justify some lame-ass, incendiary example that makes no sense. You copped that impulse from Steve Cosson's remarks. Steve Cosson's BEEN around RAT, he is a RAT. His comments take on a far different tone than someone who is without a clue as to what RAT is, where it's been, and where it's going. There ain't no Michigan militia going on here, and I'd invite you, next time you're inclined to pick up a pen or head to your computer, to attend a RAT gathering; failing that, how about the slightest inkling of research? Did you ever in preparing to write your article talk to anyone who was in any way involved with RAT? Where you been, David?
You then go on to describe what RAT is, something that the founding RATS can't even do. "Members can organize festivals...", as if someone granted permission. RAT is simply a word-of-mouth network, get it? And--in contradiction of your previous political parallels, you go on to say that "RAT is non-ideological." There, you're right. So what's that say about your previous paragraph? David, I hear the clue phone ringing for you...
The argument that you excerpted with such slanted bias was NOT about what the Fringe Festival is; the argument was about RAT's involvement in the Festival. RAT is a wily beast that has trouble defining itself, and there was legitimate concern over what the relationship between the Fringe Fest and RAT would be. RAT has existed by individual artists and struggling companies reaching into their own pockets to find bread crumbs to feed each other and the group. Suddenly, some producer types (I think I can use that term without intending a whole lot of implication) decide to hold a Fringe Fest and they want RAT involved. However, in order to BE involved, not only do these RATS--who have built up a certain amount of momentum with their own limited resources--have to PAY $350 in order to EVEN apply (the one lone fact I was educated to by your article), but they also have to submit to a scrutiny of aesthetics in the jury process, something that has been anti-RAT since Day One. I see reason for legitimate concern, and I see a basis for a feisty RAT dialogue on what all this means. And since New York is involved, the flame factor is high, for a myriad of reasons, rational and non. To top it off, you even mistakenly attribute a quote from Thieves Theatre to Mary Feast. (Boy, if I was Thieves, I'd be jumping all over you. You skew the portrayal of discussion, and then haphazardly attribute names. Can you spell "credibility"?) What's up with THAT?? Mary Feast is a single RAT, who's taken a punch at Mr. John Clancy and others, including me. Big deal. There are at least 50 other RATS out here, who could each give you a different spin on RAT and the whole idea of RAT vs. the Fringe. Why'd you pick up on the crazy, feisty gal from Brooklyn, and not, for example, talk to any of us mild-mannered Minnesotans? Or laid back Californians? Or aren't you really interested in the story? Matter of fact, are you working for John Clancy? What's your deal, David? You're hurting me. Answer that phone.
You owe us an apology. You owe yourself a bit of research. I'm not even going to address your assessment that "the best art happens in the best cities..." and then through your skewed logic, the manner in which you arrive at the ever-so-tired-and-outdated conclusion that New York is the only place where art happens. Again, David, you're showing your colors. Where you been? Pick up the phone. Leave your apartment.
Print this. Along with your apology. Do us all a favor, including yourself.
Minneapolis, Minnesota (Check the U.S map, David--and not the New Yorker's version of it....)
by David Cote
Ben Trovato and Wendy Knox seem to be under the misapprehension that I disguised "Beyond the Fringe" as a factual, balanced piece of journalism, when in fact it was a heavily biased and scabrous attack from "a clique of downtown NYC artists and critics who wannabe an alternative theater movement." This is rather like the pot calling the kettle a pot. OFF is a monthly journal dedicated to voices from the [mostly NYC] theater community. We are no movement. There is no dominant group represented in these pages except for the given "alternative theater" artists, critics, and commentators. The only criteria for inclusion are the quality of your writing and the originality of your thoughts.
My piece was misleading for a couple of reasons. First, it was an opinion-piece more than investigative journalism, and that was unclear. I thought from its tone and the general nature of OFF, any reader could see that it was not to be taken as honest-to-goodness reportage. I wrote a playful, albeit barbed riff on the country mouse v. city mouse theme, exploring the perennial trashing of NYC over the heartland and how that attitude has been adopted by the "fringe" elements of our society regardless of actual political affiliation. Much has already been written about the phenomenon of "fusion paranoia," where disparate social gripes become wrapped up in a catch-all crank philosophy of conspiracy and resistance. These are complex ideas which I handled, Wendy Knox accurately points out, ham-fistedly. The second weakness of the piece was playing fast and loose with terms like "non-ideological" and "politics."
I am hesitant to plead guilty of mischaracterizing the RATs, since they seem scarcely able to characterize themselves. This, they will assure you, is their strength. I don't doubt it, just as I don't doubt that there are many members who are doing fantastic theater no matter where they live or what limitations they face. But a fluid forum with no fixed identity has to realize that its most vocal members will be identified as exemplary of the whole, and commentators will respond accordingly. RATs seem to claim no responsibility for each other's extremism, yet they want to be considered part of a nationwide movement.
Wendy Knox writes that RAT is "a word-of-mouth network. Got it?" I got it. As I explained last month, no doubt presumptuously, RAT has no logo, no office, no hierarchy of officers. To what extent do I need to stress their sublime ephemerality? All you need to know is that RAT is a "movement." They have an extensive Web site, they have e-mail debates and dialogues over a variety of subjects, mostly in preparation or in post-evaluation of their Conferences, and they convene in fellow RAT's cities to discuss subjects pertinent to Big Cheap Theater. At the risk of saying anything definitive about them, they seem to equate poverty with virtue, or perhaps even quality, so naturally there is an activist aftertaste in a lot of their writing.
I don't think that RAT, as an entity comprising creative people, is actually on the same level as the Michigan militia or East Village "trustafarians." I made the comparison simply to point out that there are political pretensions in the RAT discourse which I find dilettantish at best, and artistically poisonous at worst.
Call me a reactionary aesthete, but I've no interest in social work or demolishing the status quo through theater. If the RAT commitment to theater as art (most of them would gag on the phrase) is predicated on its social usefulness, then I believe they need to rethink their priorities, if only to accommodate a contingent for whom the discussion of aesthetics is central and primary.
Currently RATs have started e-mailing back and forth in preparation for their next RATRave, which will complement, not oppose, the First New York International Fringe Festival. August should be an exciting month and I will definitely be checking out the Ohio Theater, which Robert Lyons has graciously offered as the RAT home base. I encourage the reader with access to the Internet to visit the RAT Web site and learn more about them. You'll find their Web site inspiring and fun, but short on sustained discussion of theater as an art form. What you'll find is a lot of scribbling, squabbling, self-pity, crypto-polemics, territorial boasting, and the occasional laudatory profile of RAT from the press. RAT represents not an artistic revolutionary impulse, but an organizational one, which is ironic since they flout centralization. If, as Wendy points out, evaluating aesthetics "has been anti-RAT from Day One," I honestly don't know why they're doing theater.
Correspond with the editors of OFF at D. Cote, 217 Bowery, NYC 10002 . Phone (212) 777-4195. Fax (212) 245-3429 or J. Woodward, 149 W. 72nd St. #4D, NYC 10023. Phone (212) 873-4352. Fax (212) 873-4352 (call first) e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
David, David, David--
The combination of only ONE cup of coffee and reading your response to my letter has got my blood pressure rocketing. granted I have a short fuse, but, man, this gets me going. I'm gonna promise myself this is the last response because I'm not sure that we're doing any real communicating, and--as I am one who can be easily distracted--a prolonged (uninformed) debate with you on what RAT is and the role of art and aesthetics and politics could easily be an energy drain for me.I'm a patsy for a good argument.
Okay, if you are gonna repeatedly claim your article was, as you say, some sort of satire of a tongue-in-cheek observation, I'm thinking two things. A) You should reflect that in the writing itself, which hardly bears the wit and edge of a good satirical piece, and B) Why don't you frame it as such? If your article is to be read and dismissed as satire, how are your readers to respond to the rest of the publication? I think you're copping out. If you see yourself as a satirist, I think you have some work to do. I don;'t think you have nearly enough information to satirize the subject you claim to be taking aim at.
Why are you hesitant to "plead guilty to mischaracterizing the RATs"? You did. The fact that RATs can't define themselves does not mean that you didn't mischaracterize them. You did. Own up. While you have a point in stating that a group can and will be identified by some of its more vocal and visible components, does that make the act of doing so right? Or accurate? Or fair? I don't think so, and if you, as a champion of aesthetics and critical thought, fall prey to the same shortcomings and superficial analysis that mainstream media, critics, some audiences, and some artists succumb to, again, I ask, where is your credibility? And how is it that you see yourself associated with any alternative art form?
As a point of curiosity, who identifies the RATs as a "national movement"? Just out of curiosity, where are you getting that handle? I'd back you on questioning that ID, as it seems more than pretentious.
Much of what your thesis seems to be is discounting RAT as an "organization." Many of the criteria by which one would judge an organization do not, would not, and cannot apply to RAT. But who is using that term "organization"? I describe it as a "network." It functions by people talking to and interacting with each other. Some RATs have described the dynamic what is happening as the creation of some kind of new model, which is a thought worth pondering. RAT may, in the end, be bullshit. RATs may soon tire of talking to each other and succumb to the "sublime ephemerality" to which you refer. Then again, RAT may evolve into something, a way of working networking, sharing information, creating art, surviving, that is quite different from any model or process you or any of us are currently familiar with. Because you cannot define RAT against models you already know, is that reason to discount it? Does a logo, an office, a Board of Directors make you feel more comfortable? Why are you interested in ALTERNATIVE theatre if alternative forms/structure seem to give you pause (if, in fact, RAT has ANY from or structure)?
Erik Ehn is the most visible and published essayist on the RAT impulse. Erik proposes a model based on poverty, a word which--I believe--he uses on a metaphorical level as well as a literal. Erik may subscribe to the literal use of the word. Or maybe he doesn't. I don't. Many other RATs don't. Poverty and virtue are not equated in my perspective. Other than Erik, where do you find eveidence that this is a shared value of other RATs? Can you find a way to read that idea on a level more than a literal one? Sorry, in your assessments, I'm looking for research, I'm looking for a basis for your statements, I'm looking for other than "ham-fisted" thought and observation, I'm looking for insight. I'm not finding it.
Finally, and this is where by blood pressure really soared, don't minimize the artistic impluse that runs through RAT. I think I can say, you know nothing about it. I responded to the political analogy you used in portraying RAT as an extremist "organization." Don't even tell me that art isn't political. If you want to have a smart discussion, why don't you ask me how I balance those two concepts in my work? Is the theatre that I produce "social work"? No. I produce Mac Wellman, Heiner Muller, Migdalia Cruz, Shakespeare, Suzan-Lori PArks, Fassbinder, Kroetz, Kevin Kling, Caryl CHurchill. Are they social workers? No. Do they have something to say? Yes. Do they have, do I have--as a director--something to say about the world we live in through the staging of their work? Yes. I consider that a political act. Am I am artist? Although I hate walking into that fucking trap, you bet your ass. What is primary in my work, the art or the social work? There ain't no social work. WHat is primary in my work, the art or the statement I'm making? You can't separate them. I am choosing to use the medium of the theatre to make a statement. Don't EVEN tell me that they can be separated, or I'm gonna tell you you're living in a vacuum at best. And is wirk that is clearly directed at some sort of, as you call it, "social usefulness" necessarily lacking in aesthetics? Is the work of BRead and Puppet Theatre, the Heart of the Beast, the Road COmpany, San Francisco Mime Troupe, El Campesino always and necessarily aesthetically inferior in your view? Why? Perhaps in your world, you can limit the work you do or see to a mere discussion of aesthetics, and maybe that's the point where we clearly part ways. Art for art's sake is boring and masturbatory. Theatre is a social form, hapeening in a specific time and involving real live people. Aesthetics are part of the discussion, but who you're talking to and what you're saying is at LEAST as important as the discussion of how you're saying it. And I don't know a single RAT who won't engage in that discussion with you. Why don't you lift your level of thinking to include some assessment of what kind of aesthetic impulses run through the various RAT theatres, many of whom have been the most avid and regular producers of Mac Wellman who you feature in this same issue? And why don't you comtemplate how aesthetics and "social usefulness" are not mutually exclusive; in fact, in the best art, they are complementary. I'd say you're guilty of some ham-fisted thought here, David.
One last parting shot: I did not EVER say anything remotely like evaluating "aesthetics was anti-Rat from Day One." I said the payment of $350 and "the scrutiny of aesthetics (BY MR. CLANCY AND HIS PANEL) was anti-Rat." I understand the jury process for a festival. I said the JURIED PROCESS was anti-RAT. RAT has never been a club to which one can belong if one achieves certain standards. That kind of selection and exclusion is a dynamic that has been resisted by RATs, which is the reason why the network can involve the participation of organizations as diverse as Wooly Mammoth, Thieves Theater, the Annex, Salvage Vanguard, and Peculiar Works. Don't misrepresent me on the idea of aesthetic evaluation. You're not being ham-fisted here, you're telling lies.
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