Jeune Lune closing concerns arts community

Dominique Serrand
Dominique Serrand in "The Fishtank," which proved to be Theatre de la Jeune Lune's last mainstage show in its warehouse district home.
Image courtesy Theatre de la Jeune Lune

There was always a sense of excitement walking into a Jeune Lune rehearsal. Nobody, not even the performers, knew what was actually going to happen. They just knew there was tremendous potential in the room, and they all wanted to know how it was going to play out.

This grew directly out of the experience of the company's founding members -- Dominique Serrand and Vincent Gracieux, both French, and Barbara Berlowitz and Robert Rosen, both American.

Dominique Serrand
Dominique Serrand
MPR photo/Marianne Combs

They all trained at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. In a 1998 interview, Serrand said they learned Lecoq's philosophy that life is movement, and actors should reflect that.

"It's like a violin player, except we are both the violin player and the instrument," Serrand said at the time.

The newly formed company took its name -- which means "theater of the new moon" in French -- from a Berthold Brecht poem, and launched an audacious plan, to perform half the year in France, and half the year in Minnesota.

Serrand says looking back, it was a stupid idea. The French critics complained they couldn't understand half the cast. American critics complained the same thing about the other half.

"It points to how challenging this business is, how fragile these organizations are."

Eventually, Jeune Lune settled in the more affordable Twin Cities. It produced shows involving all four co-artistic directors, as they called themselves, in every aspect of the production.

Michael Sommers, now with the Open Eye Figure Theater, worked with them at that time. He remembers being struck by theatergoers' reactions.

"The audiences -- not having seen this kind of thinking, this kind of approach, this kind of work -- and just being oddly amazed and moved," Sommers said.

The company put on huge shows, moving nomadically around Twin Cities venues.

It wasn't all good. At one point, they ended up flat broke. Serrand says they used $150 borrowed from a friend to mount one final comedy show called "Yang Zen Froggs."

"And it made about $120,000, I think, which at the time was just outrageous," Serrand said in 1998. "It was a great success and we went on." The successes continued to the point where the company was able to buy and convert a warehouse on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

Dominique Serrand and Steve Epp confront a problem in "Fishtank."
Image courtesy Tjheater de la Jeune Lune Photo © Michal Daniel

It opened with "Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream," which recreated one of the great romantic films of post-World War II France, and told the story of how the film was made in the final days of the German occupation.

The company was later to take a similar dualistic approach when it combined the work of Mozart with Moliere, to create a very modern "Don Juan Giovanni."

More operas were to follow, as was a production of Hamlet, done as a comedy. It actually ran within a few weeks of the Royal Shakespeare Company's visit to the Twin Cities with the same play. Many theatergoers thought Jeune Lune's production was the superior.

In 2005, the company won a regional Tony Award for its work.

Despite the national acclaim, the company wasn't making it financially. A couple of years ago Serrand became sole artistic director.

Neil Cuthbert
Neil Cuthbert worked with Theater de la Jeune Lune in its early days in his role as arts officer at the McKnight Foundation.
MPR photo/Marianne Combs

After borrowing for years against its building, the Jeune Lune board has now decided to close the theater.

Gideon Lester is the acting artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., which has collaborated with Jeune Lune. He calls the closure a national tragedy, given the company's reach around the country.

"Their fan base is really national because they offer a sense of theater, a sense of wonderment, which is rare," Lester said. Members of the Minnesota arts community are now pondering what the closure means locally.

Neil Cuthbert, a vice president at the McKnight Foundation, worked with Jeune Lune early on. He says its demise is significant because of the possible implications for theaters and other arts organizations in the Twin Cities.

"It's a scary thing," Cuthbert said. "It points to how challenging this business is, how fragile these organizations are, and how lucky we have been with this run we have had with this incredible group of artists."

Theatre de la Jeune Lune will close on July 31. The core members of the group now have to decide what they will do next.

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