It’s really not news anymore. The Tony-award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune may no longer be spoken of in the present tense. From some of the news stories, it appears a major reason for the shutting of the doors was money.
People who know the USA know that the country is a religious nation. While many folks still show up in a mosque, synagogue, or church in this nation – the official religion has to do with worshipping at the feet of the Free Market with its Eternal Reward of Big Profits.
The Free Market works its will in all things. Government is not to be trusted since it is outside the Free Market. The folks who defend this faith do so with a fervor unmatched by any sweaty-browed Baptist revival preacher. And the ways of the faith work their tendrils into the national conversation in ways both subtle and strong.
A couple of weeks ago I was channel-surfing through the various gasbags that constitute the news media these days. On one program, a surrogate for Barak Obama hawked the candidate’s energy program – the issue/flavor-of-the-week. The senator proposed paying for an “energy rebate” with a tax on oil companies. (I make zero comment on the feasibility of the proposal one way or the other. I’m not an economist. Nor am I here to promote one candidate or another. Read on.)
Mike Barnicle hosted the program and asked the Obama surrogate how much profit was too much profit? Was the surrogate against profit? Come on, Barnicle prompted, are you against profit?
The surrogate was appropriately flummoxed. Of course we’re for profit, he rejoined.
No one can suggest anything other than total faith in maximizing profit. The Free Market’s servants once against served the lord of Economy.
Now the language I’m using with the arch capitalization tricks might cause some of you folks either to screech with rage at the “Marxist/Socialist/pinko” rant you’re reading. Others of you may be starting up with some hearty “amen’s” and “you tell ‘em’s” and “give ‘em hell.”
I’m no Marxist/socialist. I’m no worshipper at the feet of endless profit either.
Years and years ago I had the great pleasure of being a touring actor. As such I travelled through every small and large town and city in this great country. I met thousands of different folks – the out-of-sight rich, the poor, and the vast number in between.
Generally, American folks are good folks. They’re generally happy folk. They’re generally honest. They’re generally willing to be helpful and make bad situations better. They’re generally curious. They’re generally outgoing. They generally laugh at the same punch-lines.
What we forget is that organizations can have a temperament or “spirit” that is not simply the sum of the parts. A company or corporate body may be quite different from the very individuals who make up that company.
I ask you as a human being what is your primary mission as a human? Each of the many readers of this column may have different answers. Some readers might say that their primary mission is to make as much money as possible. But I doubt that’s the majority. And even though the readership probably spans a wide swath of economic backgrounds – and even though most readers wouldn’t say no if the lottery broke in their favor tomorrow – I’d bet that most readers are fine with where they are now, economically speaking.
As citizens of a country we have privileges. We also have responsibilities. We have the privilege of free speech. We have the responsibility of not shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.
Unless the show is really very bad.
Likewise a company, for its privileges, ought to have a sense of responsibility to more than the god of Free Market and the hope of growing profits. A responsibility to the people who make up the company, a responsibility to the people who support the company. And yes, to the share-holders. But share-holders may benefit in ways other than simple dividends or growing stock prices.
A very good friend once explained his theory of the “High School Play.” A group of folks get together and a do a play. The folks sort of copy what they know from watching tv and movies and other plays. You make as good a set and have as good costumes as you can.
Then you get to college or university. There may be more money and people with more training and background, so the sets and costumes and effects may be better. The actors are growing older and more mature, and they may take classes in acting and/or voice and/or movement, so the performances are probably more polished.
Then if you make it into the profession, there’s more money and the rest. But you’re basically still doing the “High School Play.” Just with more polished people and more money (maybe).
Another conversation. A couple of weeks ago I chatted with the Artistic Director of a regional theatre about his trip to Stratford, Ontario. Like most theatre folk I know, he was also impressed with their plant and operations. Some shows he liked -- others not so much.
I’ve been to Stratford myself. And I would say this, it’s an industrial company. It’s probably not “Too Big To Fail” like our big banking institutions. But for a theatre, it’s probably pretty close. It’s a huge operation with the ability to bring in scads of professional actors with big bucks spent on great costumes and great sets. The shows look great. They get great directors. They get great actors.
And yet. . . . sometimes the shows wind up in the ‘not so much’ column.
Theatre is a curious thing. I’ve had some recent conversation with folks about the “science” of acting that Stanislavsky gave us. I don’t know about that. Science can help some things. Observation hugely helps theatre folk. But theatre relies on something other than science.
Peter O’ Toole is a great actor. Macbeth is a great play. But O’Toole was in such a lousy production of the play it almost put the kibosh on a career. On the other hand, a few years later Peter O’Toole, Lisa Harrow and a great cast put on a production of Man and Superman that was absolutely thrilling to watch every second. Why fail in one and succeed in another?
The company may be quite different than simply being the sum of its parts. A company has its own soul. Its own life. Its own responsibilities.
The company at Stratford can put on a great play. But, more often, it’s going to put on an industrial play. It’s not going to risk much on the main stage. It needs to feed its size with ticket sales. So the shows may always be polished if not always exciting theatre.
Over the years I’ve seen great professional theatre. I saw that production of Man and Superman, for example, in London back in the day. I’ve seen great theatre in Moscow. But among the best shows I’ve ever seen was a group of high schoolers doing And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson by Jim Leonard. Why? They were an ensemble. It wasn’t about the costumes or the set. There wasn’t much to speak of in either category. What they did catch was the life and relationships of high schoolers and people of a small town in Indiana. That was more than 25 years ago, and I still remember that performance.
This element of human relationships is what we want in the theatre. (Yeah, yeah, even in stylized abstract shows. Or in shows with non-human characters.) Relationships.
Not surprisingly when we forget our humanity, we’re less human.
Sometimes a theatre doesn’t need to become an industrial showplace. Sometimes a company can look toward creating relationships with its members and its audience. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be about money first.
Theatre de la Jeune Lune remembered that. And they decided to close the doors rather than be something they didn’t want to be.