We had our seventh annual New Line holiday dinner this week and so I'm thinking about New Line tonight, its creation, its success, its longevity, its adventurousness, its national reputation. I'm thinking about what it is that has given us such success for so long. Is it that we say fuck on stage a lot? Is it that the majority of our shows kill off main characters? Is it that we use nudity once in a while? Is it that we all seem batshit fucking crazy? (Yeah, crazy like a fox... a fox who loves musicals and curses a lot... and kills people...)
Yes, probably all those things are factors (especially when it comes to our more fucked-up audience members), but I think there's more to it. I think a lot of our success boils down to some things that happened very early in the company's history, going back sixteen years.
Holy shit, sixteen years?!? Am I really that old? Yes I am, and I have a body to prove it.
From our very first show in 1992, we made a personal label out of our company name -- we were The New Liners. It just happened. Everybody working with us adopted that phrase. Even the press did after a while. And that changed the experience of doing a show with us in a fundamental way -- New Line wasn't just a company, it was an identity.
And that also led us to think of ourselves from the very beginning as a family -- not in a schmaltzy, warm-fuzzy, Michael Landon kinda way, but in a palpable, deeply interconnected sense. So many actors have told me that this is one big difference between New Line and a lot of other companies: actors (and designers and musicians and techies) work with other companies, but they become a permanent part of ours. Even if they only do one show with us, they are forever a New Liner (it's like herpes -- you can control it, but you can't cure it). During every show we do, some actor who's working with us for the very first time will nonetheless ask what shows "we" are doing next season. They become a part of the tribe without even realizing it.
I've also always been very conscious of watching my pronouns. I try never to talk about New Line in terms of "I" or "me" -- I make it a habit to always say "we" and "ours." And I believe that has an impact.
We also (unconsciously) created a company that has the feel of a Cool Kids' Club (perhaps to soothe the wounds of being "drama geeks" in high school?). We refer to our work as "alternative," we say fuck onstage a lot (and I mean, a lot), we use nudity, we use rock & roll. We frequently worry what our parents will think of what we're putting onstage. I can still see Jeff's mom in the audience, shaking her head, while Jeff is running around the Rocky Horror set in his gold thong. We are seen by many local theatre people and audiences to be among the hipsters of St. Louis theatre. They see us as adventurous, fearless, a little crazy, even radical. And a lot of people want to be part of something like that.
And others find it terrifying...
And all that, in turn, leads to something else really wonderful. Many of the people who work with us start to think of themselves for the first time as artists. They come to believe that theatre is important and that what we do serves the community in an important way, that what we do isn't just putting on a show; it's creating art. Some say there are two approaches to theatre: the cathedral and Broadway. We believe in the cathedral approach, that theatre is sacred, that art is how you touch God (but not in an inappropriate Catholic priest kinda way). For many actors and designers, they've never thought about theatre that way before and it is incredibly empowering. It gives them the courage to take gigantic risks because they see that there is a goal bigger than just their own personal satisfaction or nice reviews.
Now in our seventeenth season, New Line has a core group of 30 or so actors who come back season after season, we have a terrific group of loyal contributors, and an ever-growing audience of adventurous theatre lovers who come back show after show not because they think every show will be perfect (I'm sure some of them dislike some of our weirder shows), but because they know every show will be an adventure. They don't come to be safe; they come to go on a ride. Well, some come to be safe, but they don't generally come back... so fuck 'em.
So it's up to us to never let them down, to never shy away from challenging material (or an exposed penis), to never doubt the intelligence or daring of the community we serve. I hope that we will always be worthy of them.
Just a little nonprofit existentialism between shows...
Long Live the Musical!