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It didn't take long for Bryan Bevell's Star Tribune op-ed to stir up a fuss. The title: "Twin Cities theater needs a boldness injection." Bevell, a theater director who most recently helmed Copenhagen for Workhouse Theatre, relocated to the Twin Cities from San Diego ten years ago. He says that theater artists in that scene were more apt to challenge each other than artists here: "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."
Director Samantha Johns posted a link to the article on her Facebook profile with the note, "Dear Bryan—take a look here...you might find something." She then tagged the names of adventurous local theater artists including Savannah Reich, Paige Collette, Erin Search-Wells, Lisa Channer, John Bueche, Jason Ballweber, George McConnell, SuperGroup, Bedlam Theatre (a company with which Bevell has worked), and Carl Atiya Swanson. A flood of comments followed, by Johns and others, naming additional artists including Billy Mullaney, Tyler Olsen, Charles Campbell, Mad King Thomas, Jon Ferguson, Brian Balcom, Katie Ka Vang, Julian McFaul, and many others.
Point taken: that uninspired, dispassionate work Bevell sees may be happening, but calling that the dominant flavor of the Twin Cities theater scene reflects a glass-half-empty perspective that tends to neglect the fact that there are more daring, adventurous, passionate shows happening in the Twin Cities than any one person can see. (Ask Scott Pakudaitis, who certainly tries.) Bevell is certainly entitled to his opinion, and there is always more room for dialogue and challenge, but personally, I'm inclined to think that Bevell is just seeing the wrong shows.
To be fair, Bevell isn't saying that great things don't happen here—he's saying that they don't happen as often or as prominently as they might, because we're all too timid to spur each other to greatness. I don't buy it. Bevell mentions the Fringe Festival, and as someone who's recently made his debut as a Fringe producer, I'm here to tell you that audience commenters take their gloves off. Even two of my own aunts only gave my show four out of five stars! And constructive critical feedback was available around every corner, from everyone up to and including the woman in charge of running tech for the show. I felt support, certainly, but if there's a director in town who isn't hearing constructive criticism of his or her show, it's his or her own fault for closing his or her ears—it's not the fault of the supposedly complacent theater community.
Yes, a lot of audience members in the Twin Cities will nicely clap for a lot of things that aren't that great...but those are the audience members who don't really want to criticize, who want to support. I appreciate their support, and I know the Guthrie sure as hell does. But to say that local artists don't challenge each other, or encourage risk-taking among their number, doesn't ring true with my impression of a scene that includes all the people named above and many more.
What do you think? Is our theater scene too "Minnesota nice"?
Update: The conversation has continued, on Facebook and beyond. In Sam's original thread, Marianne Combs shared an MPR post she'd written about Bevell's column on Monday. In a comment on that post, Daniel Pinkerton complained about Bevell's vagueness. "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."
Meanwhile, back on Facebook, Paige suggested that we make a skit called Dear Bryan, and Lisa Channer added, "The skit should include the fact that he is right. We need harder conversations. We need to have intelligent critique in this city and right now we don't have it fully. It's slip shod. Let's invite Bryan to drinks and then make a skit with him."
For her part, Sheila Regan added a note about diversity. "Our performing community is going to be stuck until we figure out how to make it a more diverse dialogue—including more diverse artists as well as audiences. Until that happens, we are in a pre-occupy holding pattern."
I also started a thread about the debate on Callboard, a local theater discussion board. Michael Cook pointed out that theater is, after all, entertainment. "This is only an important topic if you believe that theatre people NEED to challenge each other. In a case of 'to each his own,' I think it's more important to entertain the audience than to worry about if actor 'a' is challenging actor 'b.' Or if Theatre C makes the audience 'think' more than Theatre D."
As I publish this update, Bevell has just joined the conversation on Sam's Facebook wall, so we'll see where it goes from here. For now, the last word might go to Jill Bernard, who commented on Josh Carson's Facebook share of this Daily Planet post. "What I like about Minnesota audiences," she writes, "is the way they use a standing ovation to mask their scheme to put on their coats and be the first to the parking ramp."
Update 8/22: Sam has organized an event called "Pancake Time," for everyone to meet and talk about these issues Saturday morning at Bedlam Theatre's Seward space. On the Facebook event you can also read the complete thread of comments discussing Bevell's post.
Meanwhile, discussion has continued on Callboard. Hazen Markoe points out the economic considerations: "I think the article makes a point in that too any theatres do seem to make the 'safe choice' when it comes to picking shows. A large part of that is driven by the economy in which the familiar and comfortable shows drive folks to the seats. It's a delicate balancing act as a result. You do want to be bold, but not so much as to drive people away."
Katrina Baxter agrees. "The 'safe choices' put butts in seats. If all anyone ever did was take risks, They could be risking their business. We can't rely on the theatre community alone to be our sole audience. Lure in the community at large with something 'safe,' show them what you can do, give yourself name recognition, and they might be more inclined to check out your risks."
Actress Mo Perry weighed in with a suggestion that disappointed theater artists take matters into their own hands. "I understand the impulse to complain," she writes. "I want to write a blazing op-ed about how sick to death I am of seeing male-dominated stories, narratives and perspectives everywhere I look. But the fact is, it's up to me to change that. Instead of writing a condemnation of the status quo, I could work on developing myself as a playwright or director or producer, or throw some positive, productive support behind local individuals and companies that are doing work I'm interested in. I think the bottom line is that proactive, creative energy is always more useful in the long run than petulance or finger-wagging. Make something. You know?"
Update 8/23: Bryan Bevell, author of the Star Tribune column that started the whole discussion, has responded with a Facebook comment:
"Jay, I didn't say the community was 'timid,' that's how you chose to characterize my remarks. I called it 'self-satisfied,' by which I meant that much of the work I've seen takes its own worthiness for granted. Philosopher and critic Walter A. Davis writes that 'Art begins when a traumatic experience seeks a form adequate to it.' Great theater tends to implicate us, not absolve us. Unfortunately, far too much of what passes for serious theater (here and elsewhere) serves merely as ego gratification, a salve we apply to tell ourselves we are good and right thinking people. Only by striving to get past the ego, beyond a false sense of self, to the core of our creative selves can we begin to bring form and meaning to the traumatic experience Davis describes.
"Regarding some of the Callboard feedback, I disagree that tough economic times dictate artistic decisions. Obviously they can, but they shouldn't. Austerity can be very artistically liberating. Michael Cook makes a good point, theaters and theater makers who aspire to entertain ought not be held to any other standard. My remarks were meant for those like myself who look at theater as a serious art form. Mo Perry's remarks confused me. Apparently she objected more to the form of my rant than its content. I do not know Ms. Perry, but I consider her a brilliant and supple actor, obviously possessed of a keen intelligence. If a major daily newspaper approached her (as happened to me), and asked her to write 'a blazing op-ed about how sick to death [she is] of seeing male-dominated stories, narratives and perspectives everywhere [she looks]' would she refuse their offer? I chose to accept the Strib's challenge."
Photo: Billy Mullaney and Haley Houck in Snowfuck. Photo by George McConnell.