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The Light Company Blacks Out

By Gregg J. Kilday

"NOW THAT we are no longer a commercial success, Cambridge has begun to take us into its heart." Jeremy Leven, producer-director of The Light Company, managed a smile as he reviewed the political entertainment's first few tumultuous weeks last Saturday night. Leven--anything but the romantic-type artist, delighted to cough his life away in a cold-water flat-knew he still had a fight on his hands if he wished to save his current project. He knew that while financial failure might bring popular acclaim in this looking-glass city, it just doesn't pay the rent. And Wednesday night, Jeremy Leven quietly closed his show.

The Light Company -- billed as "professional theatre of political controversy and contemporary humor" --would have completed the sixth week of its run tonight. For a month it had been living a hand-to-mouth existence. The backers having with-drawn further financing, Leven had hoped to keep The Light Company alive with his own funds and what-ever money came across the box-office window. Advertising had to be cancelled, and, consequently, audiences had been small. At the same time, the cast and director worked on an entirely new show in order to redeem themselves to the critics, who, along with the lack of publicity, drove the public away in the first place.

THE LIGHT Company had its choice of poisons: shrinking funds, disappearing audiences, indifferent critics. All three difficulties had to be overcome, but how do you approach more than one at a time? Not even Bud Collyer could have devised a more devilish game of Beat the Clock. By the time it all caved in this week, Leven's operation had led an exciting life--and one that did not have to end in failure.

Situated on Mass. Ave. near Central Square, housed in the former Edison Light Company, this political revue could not have grown up under more auspicious conditions. Operating with a $50,000 investment, Leven, who had originated the long-running Proposition a few months earlier, set out to renovate the building. It was to become a creative complex, including a coffee house, an art gallery, a poetry corner, and a 16 mm. film showcase. At the center of the plan: a 300-seat theatre, stocked with lots of multimedia gadgets. In an area where small groups like The Proposition and the Caravan Theatre operate in garages or church basements, and where even resident professional companies like the Charles Playhouse are forced into cramped, patchwork constructions, The Light Company's spacious, well equipped auditorium is an unique luxury. All Leven needed was a hit show and he would be well on his way to filling in the remaining parts of his building.

LOCATED midway between MIT and Harvard, it would seem to be simple to achieve the proper blend of technology and cynicism, gimmickry and foolishness that the conventional kind of turned-on revue demands. Citing Leven's previous hits, the Boston papers spent a month predicting the same kind of success for the new project. But when the Light Company opened on January 7th, the unanimity that resulted was of another sort. Most critics saw some future for the company, but rejected its first offering as being heavy-handed, unimaginative, and just plain not funny.

The low box-office take that followed left Leven's backers feeling skittish. Benjamin Ginsberg & Sons --one of the two principal backers-- threatened to throw Leven Enterprises out of the building, which Ginsberg owns. But Leven, who himself owns the equipment, furnishings, and stage inside the buildings, refused to go unless he took the whole cast and crew with him. The resulting negotiations turned up in a Boston After Dark article by Larry Stark. So, there it all was, right out there in front of the public. Finally, Leven ended the stalemate by accepting more of the financial responsibility. And so--in accord with all the good and noble ideals of peaceful negotiations, rational discourse, and good old showmanship-- The Light Company did go on. But just barely.

LAST Saturday night, it was obvious that Jeremy Leven as tired. He had been working the box office; the actors had played their last scene a bit too loudly; the audience didn't half fill the theatre and those that did were none too responsive. Leven seemed to regard it all with controlled stoicism mixed, quite surprisingly, with more hope than desperation. He appears an unassuming man with enigmatic pale eyes and a small mustache. If, someday, someone makes a film called The Jeremy Leven Story --which is quite unlikely given the pervasive tenuousness surrounding the man's present existence--it wouldn't be surprising to find Alan Arkin playing the lead in his most restrained and subdued manner.

Sitting in the darkened theatre, Leven must have felt the frustration of a pastor whose parishioners had simply stopped coming to services. Since the paid staff had been reduced to fifteen, including the five actors, three weeks ago, Leven's wife Linda had become a sort of ad hoc special assistant. Seated beside her husband, Linda launched enthusiastically into a discussion of one of her myriad duties. She explained how determined she was to develop a provocative art gallery that would serve as a stimulating gathering spot during the intermission. ("Not landscapes and classic nudes, but works that make you think and get involved in conversations.") When her husband resumed his end of the conversation, she often interrupted to emphasize a particular point he was making. She, more than he, revealed the frantic urgency behind their plans.

As it stood then, the opening-night version of the show was almost half gone. Some of the new material, introduced since the premiere, has even turned out to be quite funny--especial a bit in which an emancipated nun feverishly embraced her lover, suddenly paused, and then panicked, "Has the angel come? Am I with child?" Yet, the total effect of all the sketches remained erratic. One element of the show, the Lenny Bruce ballet, for example, aimed at slightly obscene visual non-sequiturs. On a more abstract level, Leven had inserted stylized mood scenes on topics like the mechanization of love. Leftist political satire collided with slapstick routines. Each new offering neutralized the effect of the one that preceded it only to be wiped out in turn itself. The show left the audience bewildered, unable to readjust its expectations so drastically from moment to moment.

LEVEN'S approach to comedy is much more cerebral than The Proposition's frenetic mimickry would suggest. Having left behind the simplicity of his first show, Leven sought in The Light Company a "synthesis of every kind of movement in the theatre: non-objective, abstract, futuristic, surreal. We are to say--look this is a piece of stage, it is not real life. So, let's treat it in a context void of emotional restraints. Let's treat it like a cubist treats a piece of canvas. The Light Company should be a collage- type theatre, allowing a person to select what he wants to see."

The director's first mistake, however, was not to make the radical direction of the company clear. In fact, the whole project was misnamed. For Leven, The Light Company--obviously referring to its location--alluded to "Plato's whole thing about light, insight, and understanding." But to some of the public it originally sounded more like a trifle full of Gilbert-and-Sullivan freshness, just the right kind of thing to get ways from it all on a Saturday night. Leven and his backers never did figure out where those first few audiences came from. Largely in the 25-30 year old age group, they weren't from the local student population, which the backers were counting on for the show's real success.

ANOTHER problem was that The Light Company simply didn't go far enough in the direction that it did take. Leven's original cast and crew walked out in December, charging excessive demands on the part of the director. Their replacements had only eleven days of rehearsal before the show opened. Little use was made of most of the auditorium's electronic equipment. There was no one around who really knew how to utilize all of it. During its first few weeks, the show began to exploit the many available effects. They introduced polarized light; original films would soon be added.

It all seemed like a crazy caucus race, though, and no end--except for the money--way in sight. Linda was amazed that, while their lighting technician could make slides from most any source, Linda herself was the only staff member searching for new material. And time was running short.

But last Saturday night Leven had not yet totalled up the week's receipts and the show was still on. He was beginning to admit many of his original conceptual decisions were mistakes. He was already planning an entirely new shown. For one thing, the solo piano accompaniment could not adequately serve the relatively large theatre; Leven would have to experiment with recordings and tapes if the whole audience was to become involved. If only the money lasted, the current revue would become a testing ground for new material and techniques.

In a few weeks, Leven planned to mount a completely new show. As he envisioned it, "It's going to concern an odyssey by subway after the subway moves into another mathematical system." By employing the odyssey archtype, Leven hoped to aim at flexibility within a series of developed episodes, dealing with a variety of Cambridge types. He insisted the new show would have structural, as well as intellectual, humor. It all sounded a shade too cerebral, but Leven was convinced that, at last, he had hit upon the solution.

JEREMY LEVEN and his wife were learning how to milk the maximum possible amount of optimism out of the most dismal portents. Even the BAD expose--which Leven felt gave "an inaccurate report by presenting just one incident in a very long situation"--was not without its blessings. Somehow, the show had been divested of all is early advantages, its theatre had become more of a disadvantage than anything else, and, maybe, the situation was just bad enough to make The Light Company Cambridge's newest cause célèbre.

Sunday, Laven reviewed The Light Company's finances; Monday and Tuesday, performances were cancelled because of the snow; Wednesday, Leven met with his backers and The Light Company officially blacked out.

Of course, the backers still hold the building on Mass. Ave. and plan to turn it into some sort of money-making enterprise yet. As Leven had hoped, rock concerts will soon be scheduled. Lecturers and entertainers, will be slotted. The Light Company Building may someday become the cultural complex that Leven had dreamed of--but it will do so without his show and without him. Next weekend, one of the backers will probably visit New York in search of a small, off-Broadway production that can serve as the core of a new effort.

But Jeremy Leven won't be guiding it. That's unfortunate. The director had hoped that eventually The Light Company would go beyond being a mere entertainment package. He wanted local people to feel free to submit their own ideas for sketches. He had already extended an invitation to the Writers and Artists Registry for unsolicited material--comedy routines, paintings, photos, and poetry. He claimed to have "a tremendous amount of respect for the area. I want people to come and, if they don't like what they see, I hope they can tell us about it." And, if the show had established itself, it might just have become a partial outlet for some of Cambridge's creativity.

Late last Saturday night, Jeremy Leven began to lock up The Light Company Theatre. He did not know that it was the last time he would be going through the nightly ritual. "Say, could you add one more thing," he asked. "I'd appreciate it if you'd mention that I hope people don't wait to see what the next performance might bring." He smiled again. "After all, there might not be one.

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