A blow to live theater in rural Minnesota: The Jon Hassler Theater closes

(John Hassler Theater Facebook page)

It can be tough to be a fan of live, professional theater in rural Minnesota.

In Plainview, the Jon Hassler Theater is closing for good after 14 years, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reports.

“The decision was less financial, although that has always been a struggle, than audience development,” Dean Harrington, CEO of the Rural America Arts Partnership, which operates the theater, tells the PB. “The kind of theater that our arts mission calls us to produce certainly has a following in our area but not enough to make the program worthwhile.”

“The board of directors took a realistic look at today’s cost of producing professional plays and of owning a nearly 10,000-square-foot art center building and concluded that the critical mass of attendance needed to maintain an artistic professional theater program is unlikely to develop,” Harrington said.

The translation is easy: There just aren’t enough people who want to support emerging theater once you get outside the Twin Cities. A bookstore and gallery will continue to operate.

The theater, named after the Plainview native author who died in 2009, began as the dream of the locals who thought a closed farm-implement building could work as a theater. And it did work.

When he discovered it while on a camping trip in 2006, MPR’s Michael Barone described it as a “hidden gem.”

I was struck by the marvel of finding such a superb piece of theater done so compellingly well out in the middle of the farmland. Our Saturday night audience only half filled the 280-seat auditorium (which is technically well equipped, with good sight-lines, intimate, comfortable).

Based on this experience, I’d suggest that the Jon Hassler theater is a “hidden gem,” worthy of your attention, certainly for this current show, but I’d bet that their other offerings later in the season will be similarly appealing.

In the Hassler Theater, the audience sat above the stage, giving productions a more intimate feel.

But, alas, the reality of Minnesota rural life made its continuation impossible.