Even as housing prices plummet, homes remain beyond reach for too many theatres. Under-funded and struggling to survive, young theatres, and a growing number of older ones, often find it's just too expensive to have a permanent space. Even the acclaimed Theatre de la Jeune Lune has been forced out of its Minneapolis home (see sidebar, p 90).
What suffers most when theatres don't have a permanent home? Some say it's the design. The Minneapolis-based Live Action Set (LAS) is a collaborative troupe that does only original work, creating it through improvisation. “In theatre, you tend to want to be kind of messy,” says co-director Vanessa Voskuil, explaining that hosts sometimes frown on, say, drilling holes in the floor. “If you want to utilize, for example, dirt or water, they will most likely make you put some plastic down first, and then you can hear the plastic crunching when the actors move. We wish we could have a space available to us where we could build our ideas, rehearse for a length of time, and possibly even destroy the set and rebuild if it isn't working,” Voskuil says. They created a recent work, Deviants, in an abandoned factory that lent itself to a set with hanging plastic.
“We don't have a base camp, a place to store things, have meetings, workshops, rehearsals, a consistent space for ideas to come into the world,” adds LAS co-director Noah Bremer. “Brainstorming in a coffee shop is different than brainstorming in a space where you could get up and experiment too.” And co-director Megan Odell points out they have to sell ideas to presenters long in advance “or go through the extra work of finding an appropriate space, bringing in lighting and seating and sound equipment, and paying for all of this ourselves.”
“For the smaller theatre companies to step to a higher level, they need consistently high and creative design, and not being able to control the quality of equipment and resources can hinder them,” says Chicago-based freelance lighting designer Heather Gilbert. “They spend all their money at the public storage, so they don't have to rebuild platforms and buy shoes each show, instead of on creating a space that defines who they are and what kind of theatre they make.”
Some theatres don't pay for storage; they just don't do much by way of design. “When you only have a week in the space, you're limited in how much set you can do,” Voskuil says. Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things (TTT), another Minneapolis-based theatre, says TTT's design philosophy is “Yeah, but do you want to carry it?”
Gilbert adds that a larger itinerant company, such as the Chicago Children's Theatre, is able to work in venues with quality inventory where they can “reinvent themselves visually. My friends and I half joke that we should create a little booklet with all the rental houses in town and the pros and cons to distribute to producers so they could pick based on what their needs are for a certain production.”
Ay, there's the rub: “Ideally, you would pick the play and then the space, but that doesn't happen as often as itinerant theatres would like,” says David Cromer, who has directed for many productions. “A small nonprofit doesn't have the luxury of picking the perfect location, but a lot of theatres in Chicago are itinerant, and Chicago audiences are kind of used to that, so it's not as much of a hindrance as it might be in other cities.”Two Boards And A Passion
“When Trinity Rep bought the Majestic Theatre, the old movie palace in downtown Providence, Adrian's first response was, ‘I don't want a building! I don't want to own a building. What're we going to do with it?’…Theatre…is always reinventing itself.”
— Richard Jenkins in Adrian Hall: The Man, The Muse, and The Moments at Trinity Rep
Some artists prefer the itinerant life. “Having a home can kill an art form that has a rich tradition in vagrancy,” says Alexander Platt, artistic director of the Elemental Theatre in Providence, Rhode Island, which offers a free summer season in New England parks and venues. Elemental staged King Stag with Waterplace Park as a home base. The site-specific production embraced the environment, then adapted to other venues. Platt likes taking shows to audiences, even creating events to catch their attention. “You can't bombard them with water balloons,” he says, but free beer has worked.
Indoors, the space can play a role in the design, or the design can motivate a search for the right space. When a group of Elemental playwrights created an evening of short works, the hollowed-out barn space they were able to get influenced the design and the plays themselves. Each scribe set his play in an attic warehouse, with walls full of junk, “and you pulled down what you needed for a particular play,” says Platt. Currently, Elemental is arranging to use a church, the ideal setting for the next production Platt will direct.
LAS's Megan Odell agrees there are advantages to wandering. “We are forced to be creative and intentional with how each new show works in each new space,” she says. “We can't get lulled into thinking we ‘know’ the space.” Moreover, “it keeps things fresh for our audiences. I think they enjoy seeing what we do in each new space and how we treat each space differently.”
Less can be more in the design world. “Our designer is a sculptor who tends to work in metal and wood,” Hensley says. “We usually try to pick a shape that echoes throughout the show and make sculptural pieces that can be used in lots of different ways. It can be a bed, a garden gate, a window. There's an elegance that comes from using one or two pieces as lots of things.”
TTT takes shows to prisons and homeless shelters throughout the Twin Cities, and Hensley feels “a building is a big barrier, and the fancier the building gets, the more difficult it is for people who haven't seen theatre to come to it.” People worry less about what to wear and how to behave when the theatre is down the street or in it.
Even a stage is a barrier. “We usually make a circle of folding chairs and perform on the floor in the middle of it…and that brings an incredible intimacy and immediacy you just don't get on a stage,” adds Hensley. TTT also works without houselights, a necessity that Hensley says works to the theatre's advantage. When audience and performers can see each other, actors know when they're being boring, and spectators feel more connected to performers and each other. TTT “has become an amazing draw for traditional audiences, too,” Hensley says. “The audience doesn't mind following us.”
Mitch Golob, artistic director of Chicago's Infusion Theatre Company, agrees that moving from place to place helps his theatre build an audience, including audiences that don't often attend theatre. The audience for Creole, a production that incorporated African dance, was more urban than the company usually sees, perhaps because the show was done at the Storefront Theatre on East Randolph Street. “I ultimately care more about who I make the show with than where,” freelancer Gilbert says, adding that for all the problems, she's comfortable working with itinerant theatres, even when she signs on to a project before she knows where it will be done. “Designers are pretty used to it, since we are itinerant ourselves,” she reflects.
For 14 years, after the 30-year-old Theatre de la Jeune Lune started, the company wandered, performing mainly in Minneapolis and Paris. But when it bought and renovated a building in the Minneapolis warehouse district in 1992, it found a freedom that free movement hadn't allowed.
Critics applauded. Jeune Lune took the 2005 Tony for best regional theatre. France knighted theatre directors Dominique Serrand and Vincent Gracieux for their contributions to French culture. And America failed to fund the theatre adequately.
In June, the board voted to close the theatre and put its home on the market.
That home had allowed the theatre to do adventurous work. “We set up the space in such a way that we could constantly reinvent it to allow us to remain itinerant in a permanent home,” says co-artistic director Steven Epp. “We never hid the space behind a traditional set…the space was the set. We integrated the space with the scenography of the show.”
As a result, Jeune Lune couldn't tour some shows and had to radically revise others. Germinal, for instance, was gigantic. “We couldn't replicate it. For The Three Musketeers, one wall of the space became an important element. We broke a window into it that went into another space,” says Epp. In other theatres, they built a fake wall to mimic the effect. Jeune Lune recently toured Figaro and Don Giovanni, which they had done previously at home. “We completely redesigned and rewrote them…Don Giovanni is based around a car and a road trip, and that essential idea remained. We built a new car and added video.” They introduced a large billboard into Figaro that could be a video screen for both shows, performed in repertory.
“Whenever you move a show, you have to find different solutions. It's a great exercise in what's essential to the original gesture,” Epp notes.
Before 1992, “there were times our audience couldn't find us, and we were losing momentum schlepping around,” says Epp. “We were forced to accelerate or delay a project because space wasn't available. There were certain shows we wouldn't do unless we found the right space.”
A plan to adapt the movie, Children of Paradise, didn't come to fruition until the new building opened. “We wrote the show around the dynamics of our new space,” Epp says. A 20-minute prologue took place in the lobby, with the audience held standing. “Then, a character invites people onto the stage. It was a beautiful gesture, when people were seeing the place for the first time.” Once seated, the audience saw into the lobby, where a life-sized train pulled in, and the protagonist got off.
Later, on tour, “the train became a huge issue,” continues Epp. “At Yale, they let us keep the audience on stage and brought it in through the loading dock….There was nowhere for the train to pull in, so we rigged it and flew it down with its wheels turning and smoke coming out of it. It was a very theatrical image that still used essential elements, but in a completely different way. In La Jolla, they have a huge outdoor area outside their scene shop. We brought the audience back there with big outdoor movie lights to create daylight in the movie. The audience crossed the stage and went down into the house.”
Today, the artists who were Jeune Lune plan a new theatre, itinerant again. It is likely to be a producing, not a presenting, organization. They are searching for a rehearsal room where they can assemble shows with all the elements — music and video, water and sand — a place where they can bring backers and producers who may give them places to play. “It may take some time to get a base like that,” says Epp.