SO THIS YEAR, THE RATS (REGIONAL ALTERNATIVE Theaters) are scuttling to L.A. from all corners of the country for a conference that will no doubt come together, somehow -- for rigid organization, and the hierarchy it engenders, is contrary to the RAT ethos. This presents something of a paradox when several hundred out-of-towners converge upon one place in need of food and shelter. But for this cyber-coalition of theatrical renegades, that's what the Internet is for: Via e-mail correspondence, some people are offering their homes to visitors, while others are squabbling over issues of leadership. Such is the noble comedy of the anarchists' convention.
The truth is, before playwright Erik Ehn launched the RAT stampede in 1993, we hadn't seen such a cogent and clearly articulated theater movement in this country in 30 years. In 1963, British director Tyrone Guthrie founded a resident troupe in Minneapolis -- the publicity around and stature of which launched a wave of regional theaters across the nation. South Coast Repertory and the Mark Taper Forum are the local remnants of that enthusiasm for the once-novel idea that meaningful theater can exist beyond New York's city limits.
Like most arts movements, the regional-theater
phenomenon was a challenge to an existing blockade -- in that instance, the commercial prerogatives of Broadway, which, even in the '60s, was starting to push serious new writing to the sidelines in favor of comparatively frivolous musicals and spectacles.
Now, however, it's old news that the corporate-sponsored, subscription-dependent Tapers and South Coast Reps have become like a chain of what Ehn describes as "retail outfits," fortresses for a "middle-class aesthetic." New writing and new-writing programs can be a hefty factor in the regional-theater equation, though in his manifesto "A Proposal and an Alarum," Ehn suggests this is only a half-truth:
"There is room for the new in the middle-class aesthetic, but every new thing must be new in roughly the same way . . . Institutions are stuck on money and time: Money and time can allow art to happen; they cannot cause art. Larger theaters that have lost grip of their spirits allow art, without causing it."
So the RAT movement is anti-institutional, which means that in addition to opposing hierarchy on principle, it also opposes money -- at least, the costs of accepting it and being dependent upon it. No grant-writing workshops at this conference, thank you. No advice here on techniques-for-sucking-in-new-theater-subscribers.
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Says Ehn: "I know some good poor theaters, but I know more good broke ones; the latter are without money by design; they pursue a spiritual poverty by exploring broke-ness as a value." Ehn's indigence doctrine is exhilarating lunacy, for it embodies the essence of free-thinking, in every permutation of that phrase.
The work on RAT stages, written by the likes of Ehn, Mac Wellman and Ruth Margraff, is often about language -- not language as poetry, but as linguistics: the often goofy structures of sentences and thought fragments that we pull out of our brain's computer banks. Ehn, Wellman and Margraff are alumni of the absurdist school of playwriting launched by Beckett and Ionesco in the '50s. Remember Ionesco? Probably not -- though nobody says he was a bad playwright. Why, then, is he never produced in theaters of larger than 99 seats? That question lies at the core of RAT's reason for being.
I hope RAT's conflicting camps don't argue the movement out of existence, as happened with the anarchists in the '20s and '30s. For RAT isn't just about theater; it's about an open marketplace of ideas and entertainments -- a bazaar that's folding up its tent. The last of our truly underground radio networks, Pacifica, appears to be going the corporate way of National Public Radio, and we may also be losing intelligent talk radio on KPCC. If you've wondered why our news, music and cinema mostly look and sound as though they're coming from just one or two sources -- they are.
RAT is about finding strategies to redress what might be aptly called the shutting down of the American mind. It is about people trying to reinvent a theatrical sensibility with almost no money and by opening their arms (and Internet Explorers) to anybody. They may be nuts, but that's hardly an argument against them. Nutty people have done far worse in American history.