BLOG: Losing the middle

by Tom Poole • Jan. 3

In depth |

Near the end of her Stories Told From a Bed at Bedlam Theatre, Barbra Berlovitz turned upstage and walked toward the back wall of the set. It was beautiful walking. It’s hard for me to say exactly how or why it was so lovely a movement, but it was at once brave and timid and funny, deeply graceful, and told the story—a simple thing done simply and with great expressiveness.

I had been thinking all through the play (a bad habit of mine), a work in progress, written by Barbra and directed by her longtime Jeune Lune colleague Robert Rosen, how well each part of the staging had been looked after. The set, the sound, the light, the words, the movement—nothing had been neglected, not perfected or finalized maybe, but all the parts were being brought along together, and some were already quite magical.

Then, Barbra was speaking a monologue, and the sheer loveliness of the sound was startling. It wasn’t “sung” speech (such as Shakespeare was “sung” by actors up to and including the young John Gielgud), but it was musical, resonating with ideas and soul and what it feels like to be human inside a body.

When MinnesotaPlaylist asked me to write about the idea of a Minnesota style of theater, Stories Told From a Bed and the simple magic of that show were the first things I thought of.

When the check is in the mail

As the project was to be presented as a blog, I was encouraged to write in my pajamas and funny knit cap, throwing in whatever sort of low humor sprang to mind (a specialty of mine, more like an insistent mental tic than a literary tactic). Talking to people about the subject was allowed, as were the simpler internet searches.

Someone else would look after any serious punctuation issues which might arise, and if feelings were hurt, that was all the better, as it might increase “hits” for the website. Clearly this was my kind of work.

A large check was said to be “in the mail” and I was off to the races. (The track itself is closed for Winter, yes, but you can still play poker and bet on televised races from thawed climes if you promise you have a large check “in the mail.” And there’s Asian Dance Night.)

Chicago style

To inspire me, the folks at MinnesotaPlaylist sent along some links to articles about a rumored Chicago style of theater. I was glad they did because my Internet searches for “Chicago style” had brought up mostly mysterious mentions of “all beef, no filler” products and links to the actual Chicago Manual of Style, a giant book that comes only in a very unstylish orange color and deals with Byzantine issues of grammar and punctuation.

According to one of these articles, the very idea of the existence of a Chicago style of theater seems to have originated with some New York theater critics (Frank Rich, for one), a fact which itself must cause Chicagoans to grind their strong white teeth and hunch their broad shoulders.

The same article quoted famous Chicago Style actor and forensic pathologist William Peterson as saying, “When a Chicago actor spits on himself, he doesn’t wipe it off.” I’d rephrase this a little myself, to “A Chicago actor spits on himself and doesn’t wipe it off.” A fine but, I think, important distinction.

In the stuff I read, this “spitting and leaving it” acting style was thought to have been the heart of the Chicago style at one point in time, but has been replaced more recently by an ensemble approach, with companies evolving original work through an ongoing collaboration of artists.

You won't drown alone

I’m not entirely convinced that this shift is distinctly Chicagoan though. It sounds similar to what’s happening here, raising my suspicions that what we’re really seeing in that trend is more of a national drift than a local style.

A really tricky problem built in to writing about regional theater issues is that what seems the most profound on the ground (in the trenches) may actually be larger in scope, with the elements that are distinctly regional being more of a reactive nature. They only seem regional because they’re happening here, to us, vividly.

As a colorful example, imagine that sea level rises around the world. I don’t know why, say the atmosphere is choked with hot poisonous gases from pollution and the polar ice caps are melting. Indulge me.

This would be a big story in both Miami and Los Angeles, and it would be tempting, if for some reason you lived in either of these cities, to think that the fact that lots of things that were once above the waterline are now submerged is a local story. But the real local story is how Miamians and Angelinos distinctively deal with the shared change.

People in Miami might react by commuting in cigarette boats and wearing even less clothing, while Angelinos would do something like green-lighting a sequel to Waterworld.

The loss of Minnesota's middle

To me, the big Twin Cities theater story of the last 25 years is what I call the middle dropping out, a shift downward in the number of mid-sized theaters where an actor or playwright or designer or stage manager can work and draw a reasonable wage, and upward in the number of smaller theaters which pay nothing at all or close to it for the same services. I’m sure though that this is, at the very least, a national change—that only the details of how the Twin Cities scene has evolved under the pressure of this broader change is truly local.

So even though it’s hard to think about Jeune Lune right now in any terms but the story of their (recent and important) institutional demise—what went wrong, that a theater this good and important went away? what’s next for these individual artists, each so good and important?—that story may be part of the continuing tale of the loss of the middle. Jeune Lune, a perfectly middle-sized entity, lost its natural environment and tried to go large.

Tragic—and certainly not the only way, or perhaps even the best way, to look at the issue. It would be great if someone smarter than I am can distill some corrective or just helpful lessons from such a loss. Feel free to do so. For me though, many of things Jeune Lune contributed to the Minnesota scene are loss-proof, and would have to be part of our style, if we’ve got one.

Jeune Lune style?

I asked Barbra if she saw a Minnesota Style, and if she thought Jeune Lune was part of it.

She said, “A Minnesota style? Not sure what that would be. What I know is that when we started we were the only ones doing playful, physical, image-based, invented theater. Now there are lots of people working in this way and its part of most theatre departments. I suppose we influenced that somewhat.”

Maybe the Minnesota style is like what Justice Stewart said about hard-core porn, “I know it when I see it.” Maybe there’s more than one. Maybe it can have many fathers, like success or a litter of puppies. Maybe it’s just not Minnesotan to say.

I think all those years of Jeune Lune artistry, all those productions, filled with “playful, physical, image-based, invented theater,” were a huge influence on the theater scene here. Not only were (and are) people inspired to attempt shows in similar styles and spirit, but the levels of skill and discipline were so obviously high that people were inspired to emulate the training that made the boldness and freedom possible.

So there’s my first vote for “The Elements of Style,” Minn. edition: The deep and continuing impact of Jeune Lune. In performance and training, they’re with us still.

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