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Inside the New Guthrie

By Joe Dowling

Another more important possibility opened up with the emergence of the Guthrie Theater: the possibility that from the regional theatre might come a National Theatre for America. Before the Guthrie there had been scant justification for such an idea. The Guthrie was the first regional theatre that looked as if it could conceivably develop into the realization of this long cherished dream.Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage, Joseph Wesley Zeigler (1977)

While brave pioneers such as Margo Jones in Dallas and Zelda Fichandler in Washington, D.C., led the way in creating a regional theatre movement in the United States from as early as the late 1940s, the involvement of a giant figure like Tyrone Guthrie gave the Minneapolis theatre an importance that other theatres could not match when it opened in May 1963. The Minnesota theatre soon became the flagship of a burgeoning movement and instantly gained a national reputation. Of course, the Guthrie Theater never became a “National Theatre for America.” There are geographical, cultural and historic reasons why the U.S. has not had a single National Theatre, and it was an impossible burden to place on the shoulders of a new theatre. Indeed, Guthrie himself recognized the reality and suggested in his 1965 book A New Theatre that the Guthrie set its sights on humbler aims:

We are there to offer a selection of plays of proven worth, performed at the best standard which we can achieve.

It was always intended as a theatre to serve its local community. Not previously noted for their devotion to theatre, Minneapolis community leaders had persuaded the dynamic trio of Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler to create their repertory company in the land of 10,000 lakes. From the start, there was considerable local pride, and the community had great affection for what was dubbed “the miracle in Minnesota.” That sense of engagement has remained solid to this day. On more than one occasion, the Guthrie has been in dire financial straits, only to be saved by the generosity of individual board members. No matter how choppy the waters became, successive boards have recognized the importance of the theatre to the economic and cultural life of the region and have refused to allow it to disappear.

Each artistic director since Tyrone Guthrie has had freedom to create his own program without fear or favor. In the ’70s, Michael Langham gave the theatre a succession of brilliantly conceived classic productions that indeed pleased the masses. Liviu Ciulei, who had recently arrived from Romania, made the ’80s a time of experiment and fresh thinking. Garland Wright, a brilliant and caring director, laid the foundation for much of the expansion and growth that has been possible in recent years.

When I became artistic director in 1995, the theatre was going through one of those cyclical periods of unease and doubt that affect most artistic institutions from time to time. As Ed Martenson, then executive director, put it, “The audience is out of sorts with us—they seem angry for some reason.” Some of Garland’s choices had been badly received, the press had become venomous—one reviewer describing a production as “shit”—and, most significantly, subscription numbers were falling. From a record high of 26,000 in 1990, almost 50 percent had withdrawn by early 1995.

Examining the previous decade’s programming, one thing became abundantly clear. The decline in public support was not a result of a lack of ambition or artistic innovation. Garland Wright had widened the repertoire to include new work; he brought diversity to the acting company; he introduced some exciting and fresh directors and had opened the Guthrie Lab in an old downtown warehouse, where young artists could grow without the soul-destroying tyranny of press scrutiny. Side by side with innovation, Garland had also produced and directed some legendary productions of the classics, the highlight being his epic version of Shakespeare’s History Plays in 1990.

I began an exhaustive round of speaking engagements with every possible group that would listen to me. The theatregoing community made it clear that, despite this carefully balanced program, they felt alienated from the Guthrie and saw it as a distant, elitist organization out of touch with their needs and tastes. A meeting with some significant donors confirmed this view and reinforced a need for fresh thinking. Of course the press howled “populist” and “crowd pleaser” when I announced my first season aimed at restoring the appeal of the repertoire. Taking Guthrie’s own advice about “good plays well done,” I presented a familiar list of writers, including Shakespeare, Ibsen, Miller, Friel and Goldsmith. Side by side with this audience-friendly package, we transformed the Guthrie Lab into a second public space where new work by Sam Shepard, Femi Ossifan and Manuel Puig could play to a smaller audience. Over the years, that raw space became vital for new work and influenced much of our thinking about the necessary repertoire for the Guthrie.

The 1996-97 season proved the most successful in many years, and in subsequent seasons, working closely with a brilliantly creative managing director, David Hawkanson, and a dedicated and energized staff, we eliminated the accumulated deficit and doubled our subscription base, bringing it to over 30,000. The success of the Guthrie Lab proved the need for a second auditorium. The signature thrust stage of the Guthrie is a unique and dynamic theatrical space. However, its weakness is that it was designed specifically to house classics written before the middle of the 17th century. While the energy and the dynamism of a stage where the audience sits on three sides is clear in epic productions from any era, it is less satisfactory when staging more naturalistic plays from the end of the 19th and all the 20th century. As this includes most of the great American repertoire, the Guthrie could either change or become a theatre increasingly marginalized by its architecture.

Shakespeare has always been at the center of the Guthrie repertoire. Since the opening in 1963 of Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Hamlet, starring George Grizzard and Jessica Tandy, audiences have come to admire the flexibility of the thrust stage in the telling of Shakespeare’s great stories. The fluidity of movement, the immediacy and intimacy of the staging and the direct address to audiences make the Guthrie stage the ideal place to see and to perform Shakespeare. As it was never the intention to change that aspect of our mission, it was clear that any future development must include the signature thrust stage. It seemed logical that a second theatre should have the more conventional proscenium arch stage. With both stages at our disposal, it would be possible to continue an artistically adventurous policy while ensuring that the theatre could attract a wide audience with popular plays and, one hoped, avoid the damaging deficits that had plagued previous years.

The idea of including a studio space within the new complex was the result of our commitment to training young actors. Shortly after my arrival, I invited Kenneth Washington, then a professor of drama at the University of Utah, to head up a new department at the Guthrie. He became director of company development and, in a short time, transformed our training programs. Ken introduced a new summer program “A Guthrie Experience for Actors in Training,” which brings student actors from theatre programs around the country to Minneapolis. Throughout the summer, along with regular classes and performance, they have a chance to experience the life of an active theatre. Many have returned as company members after graduation, and all have a deeper appreciation of the life of a regional theatre. It is our hope that many of them will find satisfaction working in live theatre rather than decamping immediately to either coast awaiting the big break in movies or television. Working with the Department of Drama and Dance at the University of Minnesota, we also began a BFA program in classical acting that continues to be a fertile recruiting ground for our productions and for other theatres around the state. We decided that, in an ideal world, a studio space would house the work of both these programs as well as introduce important local companies and new work.

So, in contemplating the potential opportunities and weighing up the dangers of doing nothing, I concluded that the time had come for the Guthrie Theater to take bold steps to ensure its future and to claim once again its place as a leader in American theatre. We would have three theatres in a single complex. We would bring our production departments and our administration, scattered around the city, under the same roof. We would become a “national center for theatre arts and theater education.” The new theatre would include:

  • A thrust stage, where our classical work, particularly Shakespeare, would be seen to advantage;
  • A new proscenium stage, where we could explore 20th- and 21st-century drama more effectively and introduce new work to our audience;
  • A studio or black-box theatre where young artists would have the opportunity to grow and develop.

In 1998, I wrote a white paper for our board outlining the comprehensive nature of our ambitions. Given their unanimous approval, David Hawkanson and I began to lead our board and staff on the hazardous journey that has eventually led to the creation of a new theatre complex on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.

The first step on that journey was the appointment of an architect. A subcommittee of the board was set up to select a suitable candidate and it was quickly determined that, as well as establishing a theatre that functioned well, we should create an architectural icon that would draw national and international attention to our city and state. We chose to explore the work of five major world architects whose portfolios fitted our needs. All of them had experience designing and building performing arts facilities.

And so a small group of community leaders, accompanied by Hawkanson and myself, set off to talk to the architects and see the buildings. We visited Mexico City, Rotterdam, Paris, Lyons, Lucerne, New York, Philadelphia and several other American cities. It was a fascinating process, introducing us to the extraordinary work of some truly inspiring artists. The final selection of French architect Jean Nouvel was unanimous and enthusiastic.

What impressed us most about Nouvel’s work was the combination of playfulness, surprise and functionality he showed in each of his buildings. His originality and artistic genius were proven by the Cartier Museum in Paris, with its enormous tree behind the glass structure, the array of camera irises combining into a carpet-like wall on the exterior of the Institut Arab Monde, and the framing of the views in the concert hall in Lucerne. However, the building that sealed my deciding vote was the Opera House in Lyons. There, Nouvel had taken a 19th-century building whose exterior could not be altered and had transformed it to create a wholly new theatre. The auditorium was beautifully understated, the lobbies magnificent and rich in color; but the crowning glory was the backstage area where rehearsal rooms on the roof offered the artists a spectacular view of the city and a sense of beauty to prepare their work. This was clearly our man!

With Jean Nouvel on board and a capital campaign underway, our next task was to persuade the Minnesota Legislature to back the project by including it in the bi-annual bonding bill then working its way through a stormy session. The overall cost of the building that Nouvel proposed was $125 million, and we hoped, from experience, that our philanthropic community would be enormously generous. Our hopes were indeed realized. At present, our campaign stands at $86 million and rising. But for the theatre to be truly seen as a Minnesota institution, we needed public funding to complement the private contributions. There was little precedent for state capital funding of an arts organization, and most people gave us no chance of success. The recently elected wrestler-turned-governor, Jesse Ventura, was loudly insistent that no arts project was worthy of state support. “If I give money to a theatre, why not support Stock Car Racing,” he famously growled. We recognized that we had a fight on our hands and would need all the support we could muster from around the state.

From its earliest years, the Guthrie had established a special bond with Greater Minnesota. Through our educational work, we had links with every school district in the state. In any given year, more than 125,000 students and teachers attend a Guthrie production, coming from all corners of the state and beyond. In 2000, we revived a touring program with a highly popular production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Subsequent tours strengthened the relationship between the Guthrie and its region. So when we needed advocacy for our project, we called on the thousands of people who had come to see our work in Mankato, Rochester, Duluth and many other cities and towns throughout the state. A dedicated group of staff members, led by James LL Morrison and Beth Burns, conducted an extensive campaign to ensure that legislators of both parties knew of the widespread support we had at grassroots level. Thousands of e-mails, phone messages and letters flooded into the Capitol. On one occasion, a beleaguered Senator begged us to call off the e-mail dogs as his mailbox was becoming clogged with Guthrie supporters. People traveled for miles to give testimony at legislative hearings. The Guthrie was a hot topic of conversation throughout the media.

Following a monumental political battle over three years—including three vetoes from Ventura—we prevailed: both the House and the Senate voted $25 million in bonds for the creation of the new theatre. The new governor, Tim Pawlenty, signed the bill, and in September 2003 we broke ground for our new three-theatre complex that included three rehearsal rooms, four classrooms, extended scenery and costume shops together with spectacular audience amenities.

The genius of Nouvel’s design was his recognition that the theateres needed to be some 50 feet in the air. This was necessary to take advantage of the site with sweeping views of the Mississippi and of the powerful St. Anthony Falls situated at the exact place where the city was founded. He also proposed a large cantilevered lobby stretching 175 feet from the building where audiences can experience a unique sensation of being above the flow of the river. The studio is at the top of the building, and there Nouvel has created another cantilevered lobby offering unique views of both the river and downtown. These public spaces will be used all day as meeting places to attract casual visitors as well as theatregoers. The theatres themselves are equipped with state of the art technology and are a model of efficiency and traffic flow in their backstage areas—well, as efficient as any theatres positioned 50 feet in the air can be!

The self-designation “a national center for theatre art and education” helps us to articulate the extent of our ambition. With no desire or possibility of becoming a “National Theatre,” we do see the potential of developing our work so that it continues to have wide local support as well as attracting national attention. We will have a chance, through co-productions and visiting companies, to extend our relations with theatres around the country. Through our WORLDStage program we have already created relationships with important international artists and companies. We plan to continue to develop that aspect of our work.

The strengths of the Guthrie Theater are its seminal place in the history of American regional theatre, its focus on the reinterpretation of the classics and a highly committed audience and donor base. Now, with a proscenium stage to complement the signature thrust stage, it will be possible for us to expand the repertoire to include more contemporary writing and new plays from major American writers. Already, under the leadership of Michael Bigelow Dixon, our literary department has commissioned a number of plays and we have presented 10 world premieres in the last 5 years, including award-winning plays from Arthur Miller and Lee Blessing. New writing is the lifeblood of a vibrant theatre, and finally the Guthrie Theater can play an important part in creating a new body of American literature.

The people of Minnesota have made a huge investment in the future of the Guthrie Theater and in the vision we have articulated. This is an ambitious program inspired by the successes of the past but conscious of the need to grow so that the experiment created in the early ’60s will thrive and prosper in the new millennium. Future generations of actors, directors and writers will work in expanded and beautiful conditions. The spectacular audience facilities combined with the iconic architecture created by Jean Nouvel will ensure that Minneapolis is a cultural destination to rival major cities of the world.

The reinvention of the Guthrie has stretched our organization in ways that we could never have imagined when we began the process over eight years ago. However, it has also strengthened our determination to grow and develop the art form that we all love and serve. The success of our campaign to build a new theatre confirms my belief in the power of theatre to move not only the individual, who sees the mirror held up to nature, but a whole community in pursuit of a shared ideal. Those of us lucky enough to be a part of this remarkable enterprise are very conscious that we must not fail those hopes and ambitions. Wish us luck!

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