Plot Twist

Beset by red ink and management squabbles, Theatre de la Jeune Lune reinvents itself

IN 1985, AFTER SEVERAL years of shuttling between France and Minnesota, Theatre de la Jeune Lune settled in Minneapolis—and nearly folded before the year was out.

“It was either ‘Close our doors’ or ‘Do a show that will make some money,’” recalls Barbra Berlovitz, one of Jeune Lune’s four co-founders.

So the company went for broke, because it literally was. What helped save the players was the completely self-invented Yang Zen Froggs in Moon Over a Hong Kong Sweatshop. The production was a marvel of inspired outlandishness—that is, everything the company did well: circus-like clowning, poetic physicality, and engaging staging. Patrons couldn’t get enough. The troupe’s reputation as a group of visionaries was solidified, and over the next 23 years they would accumulate national kudos and a Tony Award while remaining in the vanguard of Twin Cities theater.

Today, however, Jeune Lune is struggling again. And it will take more than one big show for the theater to return to profitability. Its deficit is reportedly topping $900,000. Staff have been cut. The number of shows per season has been reduced from four or five to just two.

It hasn’t helped that in 2006, Jeune Lune’s leadership team fell apart, in what Berlovitz calls an “explosion.” Personal and artistic tensions within the troupe’s inner circle—including founders Dominique Serrand, Berlovitz, Robert Rosen, and Vincent Gracieux, as well as longtime company member Steven Epp—boiled over, exacerbated by decades of pent-up exhaustion. When the dust settled, Serrand emerged as the sole artistic director, with Epp at his side. Gracieux has returned to acting in Europe. Rosen and Berlovitz have been teaching and directing largely outside of Jeune Lune. Rosen, officially on a leave of absence, says the leadership split is “a big can of worms” still too squirm-inducing to discuss. But he also suggests that something needed to give in order for the troupe to grow—“We’ve worked together for so long, at some point you have to break the shell.”

What’s clear is that things couldn’t—and can’t—continue as before. This month, Jeune Lune presents the second, and final, production of its season. Until the budget begins growing again, Serrand says, this will be the norm. How did Jeune Lune, what one high-profile theater director calls a “national treasure,” come to this?

THEATRE DE LA Jeune Lune, which means “theater of the new moon,” was founded in Paris in 1978 by students of the world’s leading school of buffoonery—in the best sense of the word. Ecole Jacques Lecoq teaches a unique mix of physical theater, mime, and clowning, with an emphasis on commedia dell’arte, a theatrical tradition of blowing into town and commenting on current events through improvised drama. Unlike most theaters, Jeune Lune does not buy scripts and then enact plays more or less as the playwright intended. It asks actors to create scenes through improv, so that the characters and action are as original and organic as possible.

“I don’t know why you’d do theater any other way,” says Berlovitz. “That is theater to me.” Such a singular vision has ensured that a Jeune Lune show rarely looks like anyone else’s, even when it is: Its popular Mozart operas, for instance, featured performers singing while riding bicycles and lying prone on the stage. The Jeune Lune principals are artists, first and foremost—at the expense, some say, of the finances.

“Jeune Lune has always paid a tremendous amount of attention to the art that they produce,” says St. Paul Pioneer Press theater critic Dominic Papatola. “But they haven’t paid as much attention to the bottom line. To survive as a midsize theater, you have to do both things equally well.”

Large theaters can often shrug off a poorly attended show or two, says Papatola. And small theaters, generally working without a home of their own, can shift to cheaper venues or push back future productions. But midsize theaters can be swamped with debt after just one bad show. Considering that Jeune Lune owns a large converted warehouse space in Minneapolis, never flinches at filling its stage with gorgeous sets and dozens of top-notch actors at a time, and has rarely—if ever—cut a show from a season, the company practically needs every show to be a Yang Zen Froggs­—style success. In fact, for years, it seemed to expect as much: Overly optimistic attendance estimates, now reportedly reined in, sometimes left both the seats and coffers emptier than expected.

Even when the company had a dud, it insisted the show go on: In 2004, it closed The Ballroom mid-run, retooled it, and reopened within a couple weeks. The move, which boosted attendance, was unconventional yet indicative of a troupe that exists almost solely to perfect its art.

Jeune Lune’s desire to reflect the times in its work asks that audiences change with them. Many have, but some patrons familiar with Jeune Lune’s early madcap shows may have been disappointed by recent, deeper reflections on greed, sadism, and alienation. “People look for more humor from Jeune Lune,” Berlovitz says. “But we live in very dark times. What you create out of that is going to be very different.”

Jeune Lune can take heart, says Papatola, that another local midsize theater—Penumbra in St. Paul—recently recovered from years of red ink. Like Jeune Lune, Penumbra built its reputation by focusing on repertoire, rather than business. “Their chickens came home to roost,” says Papatola. A massive overhaul, including layoffs, a change in funding structures, and a decision to cut shows from an already publicized season, brought some balance. Penumbra’s last four years have been profitable, eliminating $600,000 in debt.

Of course, Penumbra’s blueprint may not work for Jeune Lune, as their strengths and audiences are different. Jeune Lune’s chief asset may be its reputation for originality—a reputation that plays especially well outside the Twin Cities. For years, Jeune Lune has taken its shows to such cities as Boston and Berkeley and won widespread approval, including “best production” honors in multiple locales. So, hoping to boost its fortunes, Serrand is planning to take more productions on the road.

He also intends to expand the company’s collaborations with larger theaters in other cities, which can afford to foot most of the bill for Jeune Lune’s lavish productions. Eventually, Serrand envisions using Jeune Lune’s Minneapolis space as an anchor—an actor training and production center, where pieces are created and then moved around the country.

The risk is that Jeune Lune will need to work harder to remind local audiences of its presence. “If we’re touring a show, it takes us out of the local theater eye,” admits Scot Covey, Jeune Lune’s marketing director. “That’s the marketing and development challenge for us.”

ON A BACKSTAGE wall at Jeune Lune’s warehouse theater, a series of note cards contain enigmatic words: mishaps, naked, tub, spa. They were scribbled during brainstorming sessions for this month’s new play, which the company is dreaming up through improv. It’s the kind of originality Jeune Lune is known for, yet the company hasn’t created a show like this in years. For several recent seasons, Jeune Lune re-staged some of its most popular productions.

“It’s like re-exercising a muscle,” says Serrand of the new play, called Fishtank. It’s a poetic exploration of how we find our place in the world and what’s lost along the way. And as much as it’s a return to form, it may be exactly what the theater needs.

“You need good administrative leadership, good board leadership, and good community support,” says Papatola. But you also need to remain true to your artistic approach. “By and large, [Penumbra] didn’t compromise the integrity and mission of the theater to get out of trouble,” Papatola says. “What got them into trouble is what got them out of it.”

Jeune Lune’s artistic aims seem to remain intact, even though its creative core has largely dispersed. In fact, there are more opportunities than ever to enjoy the troupe’s singular style. Rosen has directed high-profile shows for the University of Minnesota theater program (The Pope and the Witch) and for Live Action Set (Desiderare). And he’s opening a studio to train performers and encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration. Berlovitz is teaching theater at the University of Minnesota, at Carleton College, and at Jeune Lune. She’s hopeful that the Jeune Lune founders’ current explorations will ultimately enrich their work together, whenever that resumes in earnest. “I think the explosion will be very fruitful,” she says.

Meanwhile, Serrand and Steve Epp had a hit with The Deception, Jeune Lune’s fall show. Convinced that younger audiences would have a natural affinity for Jeune Lune’s visceral approach, the theater began offering $9 tickets this season to folks 25 years old or younger—and it’s worked. Youthful patrons propelled The Deception to sellout performances and an extended run.

Can such strategies sustain the Twin Cities troupe? Last fall, in an article on Jeune Lune’s future, the Star Tribune quoted Serrand as saying he’d consider moving the company if necessary. Serrand says his comments were taken out of context and insists that audience development in the Twin Cities remains the theater’s “No. 1” priority. “It’s your own community that decides if you’re going to be strong,” he says. “There is support; [yet] it needs to be much greater. I wasn’t saying, ‘If you don’t like us enough, we’ll leave.’ … This is our home.”

Tim Gihring is senior writer at Minnesota Monthly.