COMMENTARY: A local director argues that a theater of engagement may thrive only in a culture of pointed, informed criticism.
The Twin Cities area, with some justification, likes to think of itself as a prime mover in the arts in America. Our metro area has fostered an impressive array of cultural heavy-hitters in many disciplines. Still, arts communities go through cycles, and I believe that despite being home to the Guthrie, Children's Theatre, Minnesota Fringe Festival and the brilliant, much lamented Theatre de la Jeune Lune, our theater scene has been in a rather serious funk for most of the decade I've lived here.
Far too much of the work I see on local stages feels self-satisfied and uninspired, with little driving passion or evident purpose.
Potent, beautifully realized stage productions are always difficult to come by, but too often our work is merely earnest, benign, forsaking boldness and creativity for a bland literal-mindedness.
Talking with other theater artists and patrons assures me that I am not alone in sensing that something vital is missing from our local stages.
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.
A couple of years ago I attended a panel discussion with prominent local artists. During the Q & A, I asked whether anyone felt the arts community was well served by our tendency to avoid pointed critical analysis of one another's work. The question triggered a lively back-and-forth. Ultimately, a well known rock 'n' roller said that the music community was small, and that "you wouldn't get very far going around trashing people."
Nobody there publicly supported my position, but at the meet-and-greet afterward I was surrounded by a throng of people, all clamoring to tell me how important my comments were and how badly they needed to be said.
I moved here in 2002 from San Diego, a city with a dynamite theater bar. On any given late night one could find actors, directors, designers and playwrights jammed around tables, engaged in passionate discussions about their work. In that bar ideas were hashed out, concepts were clarified, aesthetic sensibilities were shaped and great theater was sometimes the result of it all.
Substantive dialogue among artists about their work is desirable, healthy and almost nonexistent in this theater community. To the extent that candid, sustained arts dialogue happens here at all, it tends to function more as a support group than anything resembling a Left Bank on the Mississippi.
Getting everyone talking will not, by itself, lead us to an artistic renaissance. But when artists fail to hold one another to a high standard, the work will eventually suffer. So often I go to the theater and see talented actors playing with confidence and zeal, oblivious to clichd choices and generalized, overwrought emotions.
Time and again I see faithfully representational yet leaden design work that hinders any spirit of play. On these occasions I ask myself, where was the director? Where are the nuance, shadings and the complex progression of the play being performed?
A dramatic text is like a musical score. Each is a series of moments, expressed either in words or notations. How those moments are interpreted and expressed gives us music and drama. When the varied elements of a theatrical production coalesce in a harmonious way, the results can be magical. Jeune Lune's "The Miser," the Jungle's "A Delicate Balance," and "Robin Hood" at Children's Theatre are, for me, prime examples of theatrical magic.
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 thinkingand 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.
Bryan Bevell has directed for local theaters including Jungle, Hardcover, Illusion and Bedlam. His most recent production was "Copenhagen" for Workhouse Theater.