The Theater Company
West Group is America's preeminent producer of printed statutory case law, CD-ROM law journals, and electronic legal-research tools. If any of those things excite or even vaguely interest you, you might like working at West Group. Legal publishing is, as they say, a fast-growing field, and one would guess West Group compensates its workers generously. There are benefits, too: One floor of the company's sprawling Eagan campus is devoted to a "Main Street" arcade, where employees can drop off their laundry, pick up a quart of milk, or sip Caribou Coffee. If you worked here, you'd never have to go home again.
West Group also claims a large contingent of employees who, for reasons unknown, are fervently devoted to classic American musicals. Every year or so, this enterprising band organizes under the imprimatur of the West Theatre Group, rents a concert hall, and puts on a show--not an amateur show, mind you, but a bubbling, hugely expensive, meticulously rehearsed spectacular, complete with professional costumers, and set designers, and a full pit orchestra. They may be cogs in a corporate juggernaut, but these folks, who mostly seem constitutionally incapable of doing anything halfway, gladly go through it all for a few hours of refracted glory in the footlights--and top billing in the company newsletter.
Marc Paez, an affable and robustly built online content developer, has appeared in every West Group production since the troupe's inception in 1985. The whole thing began, Paez recalls, when two female staffers decided that if the company was going to fund sporting clubs--there is a crew of West Group skeet-shooting enthusiasts, along with the requisite softball team--they might also support a more rarefied endeavor. "I did a little theater in high school," he says. "But I never got to play a lead. The first show I did at West was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I played Elvis. I got to make an entrance on a motorcycle.
"I think we charged like $1 for tickets the first year, and it only ran for one or two weekends. But we got standing ovations." Rivulets of sweat run down Paez's face as he talks, despite a bandanna positioned to soak up the glandular torrent. We're in the guts of the old Science Museum in St. Paul, where, it seems, air conditioning is no longer one of the technological wonders on display. There was concern, Paez continues, over whether the theater group would endure after the Toronto-based media conglomerate, the Thompson Companies, swallowed West Group in 1996 for $3.4 billion.
While the theater group continues to report lower profit margins than the multinational's other divisions, the show has gone on. Two years ago Guys and Dolls sold out St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater for four nights--something most local professional theaters can only fantasize about. West Group underwrites part of the theater guild's budget, but in past years the troupe has paid most of its own expenses from ticket sales alone. These costs--which include renting a major venue for a week and hiring professionals to construct costumes and a set--are roughly comparable to those of an established professional theater. Fortunately, though the group has never opened the box office to anyone other than their co-workers and families, neither have they ever played to a less-than-full house.
The theater group has co-opted one of the museum's empty auditoriums for an evening rehearsal, which, I ought to note, was harder to infiltrate than if I'd walked into Los Alamos National Laboratories with a photo of Mao pinned to my shirt. (There were, according to a friendly but maddeningly diligent corporate communications rep, certain questions w/r/t how this article might reflect on West Group, its corporate parent, and its employees. Which hints that though the theatrical life may be freewheeling, the culture at West Group may not be entirely conducive to rampant bohemianism.) For rehearsal, the dress code has been downgraded to business casual: skirts and ties have been shed in favor of short-sleeved polo shirts, khaki shorts, and sneakers. The director, Warren Schueneman, who, as in past years, is a professional hired by the group to shepherd them through rehearsals, is stationed front and center, gesticulating vigorously at a clump of actors onstage. "Lights up," he roars with mock-theatrical aplomb. "Go!"
A youngish woman in a T-shirt reads hesitantly through about half a scene before losing her place. "Line?" she asks meekly, then snaps her fingers twice. There's some wincing, then some more reading. The director takes his seat again and calls for a ten-minute break. Bob Holmes, an eight-year West Group veteran in marketing services and a five-time performer in the theater company, wanders over. His introduction to the stage, he explains, came when one of the producers, who happened to sit next to him in the office, recruited him because he looked like he might make a good Irish policeman. "I thought I'd be scared the first time," he says, "but we do this so much." He gestures at a line of chorus girls practicing a tap number. One of the dancers wobbles off the side of the stage.
According to Holmes, the musicals have become something of a bonding ritual for the participants. West Group is a big place, after all, with 6,000 workers in Eagan alone. Spending three nights a week together for two months is a good way to get outside the cubicle warren; morale is being built here. This seems a common theme among West Group hoofers: What better opportunity to foster corporate goodwill than to spend time working in the intensely familiar atmosphere of the theater? If they were really smart, management savants would begin recommending the dance numbers in Oklahoma to their executive clientele in lieu of rope courses and the mandatory whitewater-rafting trips.
The social dynamics of the exercise are certainly intriguing. The cast and orchestra include everyone from vice presidents to secretaries, and the auditions are open to all West Group employees. The influence of corporate hierarchy is hard to spot here, the potential for embarrassment in front of a gaping crowd being a great equalizer. This genial atmosphere, West's thespians agree, is one of the reasons they're content to spend their evenings and weekends putting together a bonanza that will run for only six nights and that no one outside the company will ever see. It's a show of affinity for theater, both as a group ritual and as a momentary diversion from the daily grind--a sort of working holiday.
Appropriate to the spirit of the whole endeavor, this year's revival is Cole Porter's Anything Goes, a musical that gleefully sends the American caste system spinning on its head. (The irony of a gaggle of corporate attorneys embodying a Depression-era social satire would be more risible if everyone in the West Theatre Company weren't so damn nice.) The setting is a transatlantic ocean liner (fun fact: in P.G. Wodehouse's original script the ship was meant to sink, but a few weeks before the opening, the S.S. Morro Castle went down off the coast of New Jersey, killing 125 people. The producers decided that it might be ill-advised to set their farce on a sinking ship). On board, a motley crew of passengers--disguised gangsters, molls, poseurs, and snobby society types--becomes tangled in a series of bawdy high jinks. At the center of it all is Reno Sweeney, the vulgar and vibrant female evangelist character that made Ethel Merman a Broadway institution.
West Group's jeune premiere is Barb Gergen, a slender, auburn-haired woman dressed in a floral print skirt and olive-colored T-shirt. She works as a data architect, which, from what I can gather, is as complicated as it sounds. Though Gergen does a fine impression of Merman's boozy contralto, the former's manner is about as dissimilar to the Broadway howler's as is possible: Her natural singing voice is pretty and fluttering, and her presence onstage is decidedly un-divalike. Unlike many of the other actors, however, Gergen has well-honed chops. "Believe it or not, I graduated with a music major in vocal performance," she explains. "After living life as a starving artist, I decided 11 years ago that it was time to get a real job.
Gergen imagines she might return to her original calling eventually, maybe when the kids have gone on to college. But, for now, a stable gig with a bit of show-business glitz on the side seems a worthy compromise. Like many of the other cast members, she talks about her employer's patronage with unabashed ardor: "They make theater convenient," she glows. In the background, the cast is arranging itself for the first-act finale, while a piano player in the corner thumps out the jaunty introduction to the title song.
"The exciting thing," Gergen continues, "is that we're starting with nothing and creating a show. A lot of times, when you get into the corporate atmosphere, you want to be anti-team. With this, our working relationships become better."
The dancers move tentatively into an intricately choreographed dance, and the sound of heels clicking on the stage reverberates around the auditorium. Gergen, meanwhile, launches into her own improvised soft-shoe accompaniment. "I've never tapped before," she giggles. "It's like the inner child in me coming out. The first day we danced, I had my little shoes on and I was laughing the whole time. It was like there was this little five-year-old dancer in me waiting to come out. Now that I've learned, how can I not dance?
"I'm a mom. I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old. So it's especially fun to play Reno Sweeney. She's this sexy, confident woman who's not afraid to flaunt her, well, womanhood. It's part of every woman that gets buried, and playing her reminds me of my other half. Once I bring her out, I don't want to get rid of her. Of course, I can't drape myself over men during meetings. But I can take some of her confidence."
A woman wearing a black evening gown and tortoise-shell glasses pipes in: "Corporate life doesn't provide everything."
"But it provides good health benefits and theater," Gergen replies. "Who could ask for anything more?" With that she twirls toward the stage. It's time for her big number.
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