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The Guthrie at 40: Facing a crossroads
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The original facade of the Guthrie, as designed by Ralph Rapson. (Photo courtesy of Ralph Rapson)
Forty years ago, on May 7, 1963, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis opened its doors for the first time. The new theater was Sir Tyrone Guthrie's brainchild. The internationally-known director wanted to build high quality theater outside the influence of the New York scene. Four decades on, Guthrie's vision endures, but the theater now appears to be at a crossroads.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Sir Tyrone Guthrie did not come alone to Minnesota to build the Guthrie Theater. He brought his two most trusted colleagues, Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler. Guthrie handled the art, Rea handled the administrative end and public relations. Zeisler was in charge of the backstage -- the magic behind the curtain -- a crucial role that doesn't get much glory. Now he's the only one still alive.

Zeisler first worked with Guthrie in New York in 1955, when they mounted a production of Candide. Zeisler says the play wasn't glitzy enough to draw in the New York crowds. Guthrie and Zeisler were disgusted. They felt New York had become too commercial, and decided in order to do great productions of the classics, they had to leave.

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Image The Guthrie today

"It was a statement I wanted to make, that we both wanted to make, that it's possible to do serious, first-class work outside of New York," says Zeisler, "since everybody thought that all serious ... theater emanated from New York."

Guthrie issued a challenge in the letters column of the New York Times, and the people of Minneapolis responded. The creation of the Guthrie was one of a series of critical events in the 1960s that led to professional regional theaters springing up across the country.

Back in the early days of the "Sir Tyrone Guthrie Theater Company," you could buy records of performances. You can still find some of them at the public libraries, and occasionally, if you're lucky, at a second-hand record store.

Guthrie set out to create a theater with a resident acting company that would perform the classics in rotating repertory. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were part of the original acting company. As time passed and as television and film rose in popularity, it became harder and harder to get high profile actors to settle in the Midwest.

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Image Sketch of the interior

Now there are a number of local actors who work in the productions, but the Guthrie regularly brings in talent from outside the Twin Cities to play the leads. The theater no longer performs in rotating repertory. It costs too much to do two shows simultaneously on the main stage.

Guthrie's definition of a classic play has always been open to interpretation. In the theater's first season, Guthrie staged Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, a relatively new play at the time, but inarguably now considered a classic.

Over the years the Guthrie Theater company has run a series of second spaces, most recently the Guthrie Lab, which serves as a place for Guthrie actors and staff to stage newer, riskier works. Right now the Guthrie Lab is rehearsing Top Girls, by Caryl Churchill. Churchill wrote the play in the 1980s -- it's about women trying to succeed in a world dominated by men.

Actor Sally Wingert plays the role of Joyce in Top Girls. She remembers vividly her first visit to the Guthrie. She was on a ninth grade field trip from Sandberg Junior High School in Golden Valley. The Guthrie was performing Oedipus Rex.

"I was so struck by how that afternoon made me feel, and I thought that's how I want to make somebody feel," Wingert says. "I just felt plopped in a completely different place. ... It was just an extraordinary experience, and I left changed."

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Image Sir Tyrone Guthrie

Wingert has worked at the Guthrie for close to 20 years. She loves the opportunity to play the classics, but she's particularly drawn to the challenge of new works. If artistic director Joe Dowling has his way, Wingert will have plenty more opportunities to play challenging new roles. Dowling has pushed for the theater to commission and perform more new works.

He's also led the Guthrie Theater Company on an ambitious campaign to raise the funds for a new theater complex on the riverfront. It would feature three stages: a thrust stage for the classics, a proscenium stage, and a "black box" theater for the newer, more experimental work.

The private campaign for the building has been very successful, despite the poor economy. But the Guthrie is counting on $35 million from the state to complete the financial package. Last year the bonding money was vetoed by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. Dowling says this year, despite the poor economy and the state's deficit, he's more optimistic.

"We have support in both the Senate and the House. We believe that in the event of a bill coming before the governor, that unlike his predecessor, he would not veto that," says Dowling. If the bonding doesn't come through, the future of the project is uncertain.

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Image Scene from Three Sisters

"There is no Plan B, because inevitably, if there's a Plan B, everyone will expect us to follow it," says Dowling. "There is no alternative for the Guthrie than that it changes and grows. The only other alternative is that it declines and dies. I'm certainly not here to watch over the decline of a great organization like this, and I hope the state of Minnesota wouldn't want to see that happen."

The Guthrie bonding proposal is just one of many before the House and Senate this session. The fact that the Guthrie's campaign for the new complex coincided with an economic recession and a war could be considered a tragic case of bad timing. Just last month the Guthrie laid off six employees in an effort to stay in the black.

Eliminating staff on the one hand, while campaigning for an expensive new building on the other, might seem like bad public relations, but Dowling insists they are completely separate budgets.

Bruce Weber writes theater reviews for the New York Times and has been following the Guthrie for a number of years. He hasn't always liked their shows, but he's definitely fond of the company.

"It's truly one of the great regional theaters in the country," says Weber. "It is a theater with large ambitions, with a lot of talented people, with a general degree of excellence in marshalling the resources that it has, and it's certainly something for the people of Minneapolis to be proud of."

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Image The new Guthrie

Weber is particularly pleased to see artistic director Joe Dowling showing such commitment to developing new plays. He says it's vital for important theaters to develop new works if they want to stay relevant. In order for the Guthrie to continue developing new works, he says he believes the Guthrie needs to build its new theater complex.

"The resources are not really suitable for the kind of percolating and simmering that shows need to go through to reach a form in which they can be shown in a large auditorium," says Weber. "The new theater seems to me to be an important step for the Guthrie in continuing to fulfill this mandate."

For now, the future of the new theater complex is up in the air. Neither the House nor the Senate have passed a bonding bill, and with temperatures rising at the Capitol, the fate of the Guthrie may likely become a bargaining chip in the final days of the legislative session. Artistic Director Joe Dowling says his company cannot build the new Guthrie by the river without the state money.

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