The irony of such a siege mentality is that it's not conducive to making work that invites audiences into Jeune Lune's world. The company's collective scripting process and profound ambitions already make them susceptible to theater's darker sins: obscurity, pretentiousness, solipsism, and inside jokes. And though their rehearsals reveal such weaknesses to be a result more of artistic ambition than arrogance, there's nothing Minnesotans hate more than being made to feel they're not hip enough.
And yet this is the same big, bright future Jeune Lune dreamed of back when they all lived communally, back when their budgets were like the punch line to a joke about how low they could go. Now they've got a home of their own: a 6,000-square-foot converted warehouse, an insatiable space, demanding constant productions of epic scale and fresh bodies to fill the risers. And they've got green cards now, fame, and a once-inconceivable budget (about $1 million a year). What would those kids say--with their papier-mâché and long hair--if they could walk in the doors of Jeune Lune today and meet the people they've become?
It's hard to say where the story begins: kindergarten, in Minneapolis, where Bob Rosen and Barbra Berlovitz met in 1955; or Paris, where the pair landed in the '70s. There, studying at École Jacques Lecoq (a training ground for physical theater), they met Dominique Serrand and Vincent Gracieux. Berlovitz and Serrand fell in love and formed a performing duo, touring after graduation with a show called A Party for Two. Bob did street theater, dodging cops in Montmartre and passing the hat. In 1979, the four founded the company; their amourdidn't last, but Barbra and Dominique continued working together.
They toured, nine or 10 of them, sleeping in hostels or wherever they could, eating dinner together every night, pooling money for gas and food, and always saving enough for wine. For the next few years they split their time between the two countries, living together out of necessity, sometimes seven in one apartment. "It was the best of both worlds," says Berlovitz Desbois. "And of course it wasn't going to go on forever, because it was so great." In 1985 their Minnesota staff informed them they would have to settle in one place: The theater was $70,000 in debt, and it was impossible to maintain the business on either continent. "It was sad in a way at the time," says Rosen of the decision to move to Minneapolis full-time, "but I find it sadder now."
But settling down did not tame Jeune Lune's chaotic creative process, and the Twin Cities--make that the Western Hemisphere--is scattered with performers who burned out working with them. "They're relentless," says Michael Sommers, a local actor, writer, and director who worked with the company for nine years. "Something was always happening. It never stopped. You'd do one show and you'd do another one--even inside the actual run of a show, it was always remarkable how the piece would keep growing."
"We did everything--dumpster diving for sets and props, scrounging for paint," remembers Chris Bayes. "The schedule was unbelievable. We'd rehearse in freezing warehouses all day, haul lumber, sit in meetings. It was exhausting."
Yet most former collaborators talk about Jeune Lune with bittersweet ardor, as if recalling their first, grandest love affair. "They are true artists--there's no segregation between director/designer/writer," says one former collaborator. "They were the best and the worst thing that ever happened to me. They have left behind a trail of wreckage, of young actors in particular, who have been chewed up and left by the wayside."
"When I first joined the company, in the dark ages, Dominique said to me, 'I'm going to break you like a horse,'" recalls another actor. "And I said, 'Oh really? Cool!' But you know, the way horses are broken is that their spirit is broken. That's probably why I left: My spirit was broken. I don't think I knew what I was in for. But I don't think they're like that anymore."
No one in the company denies or belittles the reports from their former comrades ("Yeah, it's probably all true," Epp says flatly) and younger company members report their own recent trials. "It was very intimidating and very scary," Seifert says of his earliest work with Jeune Lune. "I've gone home from rehearsal and just felt absolutely like, God, I suck, I suck, I had no idea, why didn't anyone tell me?" Seifert laughs: It seems he's practically reciting verbatim the lines of his screenwriter character in Cinemamerica--a case of art imitating art. "But I've heard Dominique say the same thing at the bar," Seifert continues. "He said, 'I'm terrible in this show. I'm terrible.'"
Though Serrand may be hard on himself, he has shared his scorn freely; some actors around town call him a dictator. "I've worked with a lot of bad actors," he counters. And that's vintage Serrand: impolitic, arrogant--endearingly frank. "I'm Mediterranean. I say what I think. It's not Minnesota nice."
Jeune Lune will have to face Minnesota--nice or not--in a little over a week, and they're rehearsing in costume, with the house lights down, and no scripts. "Who's on book?" is the constant refrain, as actors call into the dark for a line and no one answers. They're trying to coordinate the video sections of the show, without much success (even at a preview, Serrand will have to call out cues for the video sequences).