When Shakespeare retired around 1612, or when Moliere died in dreadful irony while performing the title role in “The Imaginary Invalid” in 1673, was there great caterwauling about the precariousness of theater in England and France?
Probably not. After all, these guys were just a couple of artists — and, who knows, the rumors about Shakespeare’s authenticity as a playwright might have already been circulating before he went home to that little farm town on the Avon River. Things are different today with the news that the artists at Theatre de la Jeune Lune are taking off while the business wing of the operation sticks around to sell an empty Minneapolis theater building and pay off more than a million dollars of debts.
“In the great wilderness of nontraditional theatre in the United States, a tree has fallen,” lamented a writer for Playbill Magazine on Monday — which prompted me to reflect that this tree, if in a wilderness, was certainly heard when it fell. In newspaper interviews, Guthrie Theater Director Joe Dowling spoke of a “profound” loss and a “body blow” to the local arts scene.
Well, these profound body blows have happened before and will assuredly happen again. Back in the 1980s, there was a lot of talk about fatal “edifice complexes” when the Cricket Theatre collapsed in a mountain of debt after taking on the financial burdens of opening a new theater on the top floor of the Hennepin Center for the Arts. At about the same time, Actors Theatre of St. Paul (the old one, not the one we have today) went belly up in a pool of red ink after carving a new shiny theater out of an old movie palace on St. Paul’s West Seventh Place.
Complexities of personality, chemistry …
A lot of factors besides edifices contributed to the demise of the Cricket and Actors Theatre. Theaters are complexities of personalities and chemistry, of risky decisions that can be both courageous and stupid and calculations that can be brilliant and simply wrong. Win a regional Tony Award as Jeune Lune did — and three years later, you’re out of business. Hey, you could write a play about that.
In the case of the Cricket, the board and some nonperforming staffers did the same thing that apparently will happen at Jeune Lune: They stuck around to retire outstanding debts and/or negotiate partial paybacks. Once that was done, there was an effort to resuscitate the Cricket under new management, though it only lasted a few seasons.
Here’s another irony: The Jeune Luners became one of the principal users of the Cricket’s vacated top-floor theater at the Hennepin Center before the space became the permanent home of Illusion Theater, and the Jeune Luners moved on to their splendidly scruffy new edifice. Meanwhile, Park Square Theatre took over the house that had been built by Actors Theatre. Things go on.
Of course it’s sad. Go to Jeune Lune’s web page if you want to witness some palpable pain in the official statements, particularly the one posted by Artistic Director Dominique Serrand. But as they say, with pain, there’s gain — or at least relief. That’s palpable in Serrand’s statement, too, along with all the flustering excitement of a new start.
Exploring a reinvention
“Starting today, we begin imagining a new way of working,” Serrand wrote in his statement Monday. “Building upon our artistic legacy, and facing a different future, we are exploring ways to reinvent an agile, nomadic, entrepreneurial theatre with a new name.”
That’s not exactly morose, is it? I was struck by the word “nomadic,” which was a good description of the Jeune Luners when they first came on the scene 30 years ago.
It is astonishing, in fact, that Theatre de la Jeune Lune endured as an entity for as long as it did — and that it took on the trappings of an institution. Serrand acknowledges as much in his farewell statement. Many of us who were around when the group of iconoclastic, often haughty-acting ruffians came to town thought they were destined to blast apart like particles in a cyclotron — and we were a little troubled when they didn’t, as if they had given in to the establishment.
I remember, decades ago, when I was chatting with a Jeune Lune core member (I’m withholding the artist’s identity because the occasion wasn’t an interview) who was lamenting about having to deal with a board of directors in order to gain the benefits of nonprofit status.
“Their job is to get money for us,” the performer said. “But they want to talk to us about what we’re doing and all that. It’s none of their business and a terrible waste of time.”
Like chains around the ankles
Ah, institutional responsibility — like chains around the ankles of these nomads. And now it is ended. And starting.
The legacy of the Cricket and Actors theaters can provide a perspective on how things are likely to shake out. Both theaters nurtured a community of actors — you’d be surprised how many are still around and doing quite well, thank you — and they helped establish expectations for quality and inventiveness among the local theater-going public. Theatre de la Jeune Lune has inspired hundreds, perhaps thousands, of actors and other theater artists, and that legacy will be around for a long time, transmuting as those folks go on.
Enduring, too, will be the legacy of the style of work that defined Jeune Lune — physicality, inventiveness, adroitness, the wondrous ability to spin our imaginations out of simplest of objects and to give imagery to complex ideas. At their best, we had the shivering feeling that we were seeing something greater than those who were creating it — which isn’t such a bad definition of art. And it was happening right before us.
Today gets old incredibly fast in the theater, which is the very essence of ephemeral. See it now or see it never. The first thing a playwright is asked at the opening-night cast party is, “What are you working on now?” Tonight’s triumph is done: Move on.
So goodbye, Jeune Lune. And thanks. Oh, and just wondering: What are you working on now?