Declaration of Independence
Out in the dark, the tires of a speeding car shriek grotesquely. Glass shatters, metal grinds. We hear cries and moans, popping glass. The lights come up. The car is balancing on its side onstage, headlights on. A head of curly red hair pops through the hole where a windshield should be. She moans again and smiles. "That was the best sex I ever had."
It's the opening shot of a movie called America, being filmed by the characters in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's newest play, Cinemamerica. Call it love, American-style: sex and violence, the oldest hook in the book. It's the perfect crash, a death so smooth, we don't even know if the two lovers are dead. In fact, the same car is "crashed" in Cinemamerica more than once. More than twice. The play is a cabaret of wrecks, with each chorus of collisions serving as its own metaphor: for America, youthful ambition, idealism, creativity, Jeune Lune itself.
This theater has grown from a roving tribe of broke, part-time expatriates to a bona fide institution over the past 18 years. These days, it may well be Minnesota's most admired theater on the national scene, a troupe renowned for its soaring sense of visual spectacle and narrative lyricism. "When people in New York talk about theater, they talk about Jeune Lune," says Chris Bayes (who was a company member for five years and then worked at the Guthrie for seven, and now directs in New York and teaches at the Juilliard School). "People say things like, 'Wow, you worked at Jeune Lune--I saw a show of theirs when I was 15 that was amazing.' People don't talk that way about the Guthrie or the Jungle."
But that's no life insurance policy, not in America in 1997. Theater is the riskiest of risky businesses, and doing risky shows is Jeune Lune's trademark. They've wrecked before, both on stage and in the ledger books. "There's been financial crisis points where you go so far into debt you'd better just cut your losses and bail out--keep from creating a gigantic disaster," says artistic associate Steve Epp. "There's been points where we felt like we were on the brink of that, and it never goes away. The numbers just get bigger. And the stakes are higher."
But then crashes are part of the Jeune Lune collective consciousness by now: The company was baptized on asphalt. On a summer night in 1979, at the start of their first tour, three members of the newborn troupe were violently rear-ended on the road from Paris to Chartres. Their old Citroën exploded from the windshield back: Bob Rosen watched sheets of glass cross before his eyes in slo-mo as he was tossed onto the highway, skidding on his butt and landing in some bushes. He looked down and found himself poised on one knee, as if proposing marriage. Fake fish, leather masks, papier-mâché cakes, and lace collars littered the highway.
Dominique Serrand (who directs Cinemamerica) was oblivious to the action, sitting safe in his truck up the road, but the memory seems to spook him the worst: "I got gas and waited and asked people, Did you see an accident? And they said, 'Yeah, it looked like there was nothing left of the car, there were fire trucks.' And I thought, They're dead." Serrand tells the story with an actor's timing, pausing here and there for effect. But the gravity in his eyes is no put-on. It was all over for him at that gas station, for a few hours. He's never forgotten that feeling.
Jeune Lune chose an intact Ford Tempo for a starring turn in this show--which seems to lack the grisly auto-charisma of, say, a crunched-up Miata. "We looked at some cars that were completely smashed in," says Serrand. "You'd find people's things in them--a Coke can, a glove. We thought it would be bad luck." This is a superstitious lot, but after a few box-office disappointments in the past two years and bitter run-ins with the press, the company's not running scared. In fact, they're more determined than ever to do exactly what they want, and to be loved for it--and financially supported too.
Says Epp, "Against all odds--and sometimes insanely--we choose to do things that are very difficult and huge and obscure." Impossible is another favorite word in connection with their new piece, the most ambitious work to date: two full-length plays on the improbably grand topic of America, collectively titled The Pursuit of Happiness and written from scratch by the entire company. "It's not business as usual anymore," says producing director Steve Richardson. "We want to excite people, we want to say, 'Pay attention to us again, this is what we're doing.' And really do it."
In practical terms, meeting these ambitions means ceaseless work--same as ever. The performers don't just rehearse the show; they also share business duties, both to reflect their philosophy that artists should control their own finances, and, less philosophically, because there isn't any money to hire more staff. The result is that these artists seem perpetually tired and can never get everything done. After over a year of exhausting conceptual work, Cinemamerica may still not be ready for opening night.
Yet rehearsals, like dinner parties, have distinct personalities, and this particular day is a sunny one. Luverne Seifert, a big guy with a broad face prone to goofy grins, is practicing the play's weirdest role and baldest inside joke: Ginny Starr, reporter "at large," a transvestite who has her own TV show where she performs "installations." Meanwhile, Serrand jiggles his feet incessantly, while everyone else smokes and looks around the room. As he is famous for doing, Serrand has been spending a disproportionate--perhaps even counterproductive--amount of time rehearsing one section.
Seifert turns the flame on high, half lisping, strutting across the stage and seething, During the L.A. riots I slashed my forehead with a ballpoint pen, went screaming the Lord's Prayer through the streets of South Central... I stalked a young man running with a 27-inch television set, I tackled him, threw him to the ground, and made him fuck me right in front of a Korean furniture store on Valencia Avenue...
Chuckles, sighs, the sounds of bodies shifting in chairs. This "fuck me" business is gonna be an issue. And Seifert's still not giving Serrand what he wants. "You're much stronger when you're not moving," he says. "Just get planted and tell your story." Seifert begins again, this time sticking to the middle of the floor. It's better. But it's damn near impossible to get anybody to laugh; this is not an easy room, and asses are not kissed here.
Serrand stops Seifert and actor Steve Epp every few lines, usually mid-sentence, throwing out succinct directions they instantly absorb. Most of the time. Serrand, who's been in Minnesota about 20 years, is a master of English--he speaks of "succulent" moments and the like--and he's good for poetic brevity, what I come to think of as "Dominique's little koans":
"The movement has to be ludicrous before it becomes extraordinary." "As you create physical distance from him, don't play it distanced. There's no easier way to be close to someone than when you're far away." "It's not like you've forgotten. It's like you're trying to remember something you've never known." At times, he achieves spontaneous haiku. In other moments, he leaves the cast members scratching their heads until some bold soul pipes up: "So... what are we supposed to do?"
One has to wonder how many people in the audience will ever catch these subtleties. This time, though, subtlety ain't the point:
"More cruel," he urges Seifert. "Even more cruel."
"Cruel" is a telling word choice. Jeune Lune has been scorched by reviews in the recent past, and they're not about to forget it. Company member Joel Spence maintains Ginny Starr is not intended as a dig at the press. "It's more about the helplessness you feel around her," he says. "No matter what you do, your life is out of control."
I buy the argument until I see the costume: a fuchsia miniskirt and midriff-baring top--which shows off Seifert's rotund belly--and a dark brown bob wig with straight bangs. It's a look that's strikingly similar to that once donned by a certain big-boned theater critic, Jayne Blanchard of the Pioneer Press, who was probably the harshest they've ever known. Coincidence? I ask the costume designer. "Not entirely," she demurs.
Last year's Three Musketeers also contained an indictment of critics, but that was an eloquent soliloquy, delivered by Epp. Ginny's different. She's mean, scabrous, ridiculous. Blanchard wrote some of her funniest stuff while stabbing Jeune Lune: Perhaps her most famous quip--one recounted occasionally at the theater--was to call the farce Honeymoon China "a death camp with curtain calls." Peter Vaughan of the Star Tribune was barely kinder, and the experience rattled the company to the core. Their reaction was a vote of noncooperation that looked both unprofessional and defensive: They informed Vaughan and Blanchard that they were not welcome anymore, and would neither receive tickets nor photographs for publication. (Coincidentally, both critics have since left their posts.)
But Jeune Lune is hardly alone in their dissatisfaction with local critics. Artists unanimously complain of the shift toward the sound bite, the two-thumbs-up mode of reviewing in which judgment of how "good" a show is overwhelms in-depth analysis. It's a salient point: Theater and film are no longer critiqued as art in daily papers; they're judged as entertainment. And Serrand is correct in his charge that precious few critics know much of anything about theater.
Thespians here and on both coasts voice the same opinion over and over: Jeune Lune is taken for granted in Minnesota. They point to the very phenomenon that helped the troupe so much at the start: the Minnesotan "inferiority complex" and attendant weakness for out-of-towners. ("You can never underestimate the power of an accent in this town," says one former Jeune Luner.) "Look at the whole slavish freakout over the Broadway shows coming through that are artistically questionable at best," argues Steve Richardson. "The Guthrie's getting a huge bump because they have an Irish artistic director. And good for them. It's all cyclical. When the orchestra got a new conductor, it was the same thing."
That sounds like sour grapes, and, even more, dangerously like self-pity. Jeune Lune, it seems, hate to be poorly reviewed--but even more, they feel Blanchard and Vaughan did not merely dislike their work, but did not understand, or want to understand it. "There has been no support for doing the kind of work we're doing," says Epp. "In fact, the opposite: [We've had] the feeling there were people who just wanted to squelch it, just stamp it out."
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 amour didn'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).
These sections are meant to convey what's going on in the imaginations of the play's self-smitten filmmakers, but nobody knows whether they're going to work out technically, or even stay in the show. Right now, Cinemamerica seems fragmented, and everyone keeps talking about how "flat" it feels. "When the audience is confused, or is not following what's going on, it's probably because we're not inviting them in," says Spence one night after rehearsal. "That's what was alarming to me today about Act One; it didn't seem like the audience was included for a good portion of it."
Our girl Ginny is still in the show, though the fuck me line has been jettisoned. "[One day] I said, that's just gratuitous, I don't get the point or understand why we have to say that," recalls Berlovitz Desbois. "It's going to come out of a big man dressed as a woman--what is this all about?"
Perhaps the most frightening part of opening Cinemamerica is the knowledge that even after opening night, the project remains only half-done. Part two, Lifeliberty, opens a month later, and is itself another sprawling and ridiculously challenging work. From the unreality of Hollywood, this show will retreat to find a subculture underground, as inspired by the "mole people" who live in New York's subway tunnels. These people are the natural end product of Cinemamerica, the ones left behind by the Disneyfied planned community that America is becoming.
The metaphor here extends to Jeune Lune and their own occasional sense of obsolescence. It is winter in the theater world, and the art form is embattled like never before: by television and movies; by deteriorating criticism; by the crippling of the National Endowment for the Arts; by the political agendas of corporate funders; by high-priced Broadway tours that suck up theatergoers. All these forces whittle away at audiences for local theater, and all contribute to the nation's creeping theatrical illiteracy. These days, even major regional theaters like the Guthrie are fighting to hold on to their audiences and maintain funding. It's difficult enough if you're doing classics and revivals--as both the Guthrie and the Jungle do.
It's more difficult if you're intrepidly, ceaselessly reaching for ever-higher artistic plateaus, and employing a painstaking collective process. Put plainly, Jeune Lune's shows aren't the sorts of works they can mount in six weeks--nor would they want to. They live for the process, the sort of gestation that produced Cinemamerica: They dream, debate, free-associate ideas, and improvise. They write fast and dirty to see what comes out, then tinker and argue some more.
This indulgent method is the envy and admiration of theaters across the country, but almost no one else does it because it's too expensive. And when you've got a full-time staff of 16, bills to pay, an enormous theater to fill, and funders to please, it's almost impossible to sustain year-round (especially since almost half their annual budget comes from ticket sales). The catch-22 is that the company feels its best shows--and biggest financial successes--are the ones born from this process.
The result is that "we produce more than we want to be producing," says Berlovitz Desbois, and they're painfully aware of the artistic price paid. (Witness the critical and box-office disappointment of last season's revival of The Kitchen.) That's why this moment is so important, says Richardson. "This is where we have arrived, and now we're ready to say that with confidence. In some ways it's a manifesto of the company's opinions about theater. The work we produce over long periods of time--where we're really putting our money where our rhetoric is--those are the big successes critically and popularly. Now we're saying, if that's the case, let's do that for every show and make sure that every show has that fire and that core."
And so it comes to pass that on October 11, Cinemamerica finally opens to a full house at Theatre de la Jeune Lune. "We are almost never ready to open a show," Serrand likes to remind an audience, a hint of pride in his voice. "It's just what we have so far. And we continue to change it until we close." That's what makes this theater piece so different from film, the medium this production comments on. The work is never static, never finished; and once it is performed, the work is forever lost, each night.
And the lovers will be here every night, crawling from the wreckage of their desire. Consummating their love anew: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday--and next week, and the week after. Can the affair with America last? Will it be reciprocated?
It's a long play, often funny, with a couple of masterful, transcendent moments. In one rather maddening scene, the film director, producer, and star argue combatively about where the movie's plot is going. The scene is long, and becomes increasingly outlandish the longer they debate. By intermission, the film has dissolved into a contentious muddle of acrimony and nonsense; the collective process has crashed for these men.
And from the silence in the theater and the long pause before the applause, one wonders if Jeune Lune realizes that they're telling their own autobiography, and it might not be going over. The play, like the film inside it, like America itself, teeters on the edge of an impossible disjointedness. How, one wonders, do you convey chaos without becoming chaos? How do you tell a story without becoming the story?
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