Can engaging theater thrive in a culture of avoidance?

Director Bryan Bevell has a bone to pick with the Twin Cities theater scene… and he won’t be surprised at all if you don’t want to talk about it.

In a recent commentary for the Star Tribune, Bevell charged that much of the work he see on local stages “feels self-satisfied and uninspired, with little driving passion or evident purpose.”

It is ironic that the same Minnesota culture that yields such a stunning variety of transformative, breakthrough artists is itself quite resistant to transformation and breaking through. We have our own way of doing things. We are prone to deflection. We avoid subjects that may be considered “unpleasant.” And while conflict is the essence of drama, it’s something most Minnesotans avoid like the Ebola virus.

These particular aspects of “Minnesota Nice” raise the question of whether a theater of engagement can thrive in a culture of avoidance.

Bevell goes on to say the Twin Cities lacks a pointed critical dialogue, in which theater professionals have the courage to speak candidly about the work of their peers. And, he says, audiences should demand performances of consistent quality.

The odd thing about our theater is that the focused and inspired usually occur right alongside the lazy and hackneyed. We’ve gotten so used to this kind of performance that audiences merely suffer through the boring parts without comment or complaint, then bounce back to life to acknowledge a powerful moment or funny joke. We expect musicians to exhibit craft and precision throughout an entire set or concert. We ought not be so forgiving of actors and directors who lack consistency in their craft.

The theater long has held a unique place among the arts in Western society. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the theater has been the place we go to face the deep stuff, to confront our innermost secrets and fears, and to grapple with issues we might otherwise choose to hide away and ignore. The theatrical experience is a communal event, a powerful ritual that can literally change people. As a great play works its magic on an audience it can open us up to new, previously unimagined ways of thinking and seeing.

For more than 2,000 years, the theater has been the place Western culture goes to find the truth, however unsettling the journey may be. Today’s theater artists have the honor and the burden of living up to this great legacy.

So what do you think? Is the Twin Cities theater scene in a slump? How could the critical dialogue be improved?

  • John

    MN theatre’s not the only one in a slump. The idea of missing purpose has to do with its lost audience.

    Mastery of the craft should be assumed. Beyond the craft of theatre, the form continues its struggle to simply find relevancy with audiences that are more engaged by entertainment and social commentary that doesn’t require as much investment in terms of time and money.

    A subscription to Netflix or having cable TV and watching something like The Daily Show is cheaper alternative to spending an evening traveling, paying for tickets and dinner/drinks. While they are completely different experiences, as major corporations weigh the time crunch of a consumer, this should be something theatre companies take into consideration as they aim to pull themselves out of a slump.

  • Catherine reid day

    One of the greatest contributions to artistic critical dialogue is Liz Lehrman’s Critical Response Process. As a dancer/choreographer, she realized that all critical feedback was designed for the audience to give feedback, but not for the artist to learn about their work and what the audience was receiving from it. For two years I was a member of a critical response group that included composers, painters, writers and storytellers. We applied her process, faithfully true to it, every time, and every time each artist made leaps because of it. We all learned, and we improved our work. Applying this process to theater would help build a dialogue that moves one out of self-satisfaction or frustration to discovery and growth. You can find the process on her website and order a handbook.

  • Daniel Pinkerton

    Yeah, I read this piece in the Strib. Nothing new in this essay. People say this not only about the theatre in general but also about the theatre in (insert name of city) on a regular basis. Complaining about the lack of whatever kind of theatre you like is old hat. What distinguished Bryan’s piece was its vagueness. By the end of the piece, I had hardly any idea what he considered good and bad theatre. Had Bryan named some specific examples of fresh, compelling theatre and what he found compelling about them, the piece might have been helpful and possibly even inspiring.

    Bryan talks about a culture of avoidance, but I noticed that he did not, even in a San Diego nice way, list examples of the hackneyed, either. He himself has avoided unpleasantness, so it was hard to take his attempted flogging very seriously.

    I wrote an effing musical about Typhoid Mary, so don’t lecture me about “difficult subject matter.” It wasn’t consistently excellent from start to finish, but if we all had to worry about that all the time, we’d never do ANYTHING.

    I do not find the Twin Cities theatre community to be lacking in conflict or unwilling to engage in criticism. I’ve had lively discussions with people all over town about theatre. But we actually talk about the work and the artists. Because Bryan does neither, I see this essay as being pointless and cliched.