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?