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#4. Guthrie Theater

Iconic Moments in Guthrie History

The Guthrie Theater was founded by Sir Tyrone Guthrie in 1963 and is an American center for theater performance, production, education and professional training. The Tony Award-winning Guthrie Theater is dedicated to producing the great works of dramatic literature, developing the work of contemporary playwrights and cultivating the next generation of theater artists. With annual attendance of nearly 500,000 people, the Guthrie Theater presents a mix of classic plays and contemporary work on its three stages. Under the artistic leadership of Joe Dowling since 1995, the Guthrie continues to set a national standard for excellence in theatrical production and performance. In 2006, the Guthrie opened its new home on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, the Guthrie Theater houses three state-of-the-art stages, production facilities, classrooms and dramatic public lobbies.

guthrie-theater-1Guthrie Theater Location: Minneapolis, MN Architect: Jean Nouvel Year: 2006

Jean Nouvel, famed French architect, gave the Twin Cities the gift of the “Best Cultural Space in the USA” and one of the “10 most important buildings of the 21st-century.” Bare in mind, the century still has roughly 90 years left, but you can still get a sense of the legacy the Guthrie Theater has already built for itself in just 5 short years.

The Guthrie Theater

215px-Guthrie_Theater-night-2007-03-12Founded in 1963, is a center for theater performance, production, education, and professional training in MinneapolisMinnesota. It is the result of the desire of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea, and Peter Zeisler to create a resident acting company that would produce and perform the classics in an atmosphere removed from the commercial pressures of Broadway.

The Guthrie Theater has performed in two main-stage facilities. The first building was designed by architect Ralph Rapson, included a 1,441-seat thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, and was operated from 1963–2006. After closing its 2005–2006 season, the theater moved to its current facility designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.  In 1982, the theater won the Regional Theatre Tony Award.

The Guthrie celebrates its 50th anniversary during its 2012–2013 season.


220px-Guthrie-snow-2005In 1959 Tyrone Guthrie published a small invitation in the drama page of The New York Times soliciting communities’ interest and involvement in a resident theater. Out of the seven cities that responded, the Twin Cities showed not only interest but also eagerness for the project.

Frank Whiting, the director of the University of Minnesota Theater introduced Guthrie to the arts community in the Twin Cities and helped gather support that persuaded Guthrie to locate his theater in Minneapolis. With the help of the newly founded Tyrone Guthrie Theater Foundation a fundraising effort raised over US$2 million. The new theater was completed in 1963 in time for the May 7 opening of Hamlet. During its first season the Guthrie theater featured well known stage actors Jessica Tandy and Zoe Caldwell and featured a group of younger actors including Joan van Ark. Tyrone Guthrie served as Artistic Director until 1966 and continued to direct at the theater he founded until 1969, two years before his death. In 1966 Douglas Campbell was named Artistic Director.

Throughout the 1960s the Guthrie found critical acclaim in its productions of Henry VSt. JoanCaucasian Chalk CircleThree Sisters and especially The House of Atreus. In 1968 the production of The House of Atreus was taken on the road in a national tour that was a first for a resident theater.  Also starting in 1968 the Guthrie started producing a series of plays done on smaller stages in the Twin Cities area, Crawford-Livingston Theater and The Other Place.

In 1971, Michael Langham became Artistic Director and produced highly successful classics including Oedipus the KingLove’s Labour’s LostShe Stoops to Conquer, and A Streetcar Named Desire. After Langham left in 1977, the Guthrie crossed a milestone of sorts when for the first time it selected an artistic director that was not a respected collaborator or friend of Tyrone Guthrie. That year Alvin Epstein was selected as Artistic Director and was the first American to fill that role.

220px-New_Guthrie_riverviewIn 1980 Liviu Ciulei replaced Epstein. Ciulei was the former Artistic Director of  Teatrul Bulandra in Romania and had a profound influence on the Guthrie theater. He challenged audiences with his bold theatrical interpretations and his highly contemporary and international style. Ciulei’s intense interest in theater didn’t stop at the productions themselves, he was a world-class designer and architect and one of the first things he did was to redesign the theater itself.  His changes allowed more structural flexibility in the stage to allow each production a unique physical presentation. While Ciulei was not able to attain all the goals he had envisioned, he was able to maintain and advance the Guthrie’s national and international reputation as a first-rate example of American Theater and drew critical success with productions of classics such as Peer GyntThe Marriage of FigaroA Midsummer Night’s Dream,The Seagull, and Tartuffe. He also was able to reestablish the Guthrie’s commitment to acting ensembles by gathering together a rotating repertory in his last season as Artistic Director in 1985.  In 1982, the theater won the Regional Theatre Tony Award.

That year the Guthrie turned to Garland Wright who had spent some time as Liviu Ciulei’s Associate Artistic Director in the early 1980’s as Ciulei’s replacement. Wright had shared a vision with Ciulei that included the desire to have a second, smaller stage that could act as a lab to enable the exploration of new work and performance techniques. Born out of this vision was the Guthrie Laboratory (also known as the Guthrie Lab) located in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. Wright also shared a desire to keep the concept of a resident acting company alive and used his ensembles to great effect. He was able to combine critical and popular success with a series of productions that helped reestablish a large, enthusiastic and loyal audience base. Productions from this period include The MisanthropeRichard IIIThe Screens, and a trilogy of Richard IIHenry IV (Parts I and II) and Henry VMedeaand As You Like It. Wright also created a series of outreach programs designed to garner interest in theater among young people and involving high school and colleague instructors.

guthrie-theater-2Garland Wright announced his resignation in 1994 and after an international search for his successor, Irish director Joe Dowling was chosen as the Guthrie’s seventh Artistic Director.  Dowling had gained an international reputation with his work at Ireland’s national theater, The Abbey Theater, including becoming the Abbey’s youngest Artistic Director in its long history.

Under Dowling’s artistic leadership, the Guthrie Theater has enjoyed unprecedented growth. Subscriptions are at an all-time high of more than 32,000, up more than 50% from the beginning of Dowling’s tenure. Dowling’s time at the Guthrie Theater has been marked by a return to regional touring, co-productions by visiting international theater companies (WorldStage Series), collaborations with local theater companies, and his own dynamic productions of the classics.

1963 theater building

The Guthrie Theater on Vineland Place, prior to demolition in 2006

Paired with an innovative philosophy that included a resident acting company with high professional standards was a unique design concept in the stage itself.

Architect Ralph Rapson was selected to design the 1963 theater building. Rapson was a leading contributor to architecture’s modern movement on the East Coast from the late 1940s through the 1950s, and served as head of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture in the late 1950s.  Rapson had also worked on some preliminary sketches of the Walker Art Center, who donated land for the Guthrie’s construction. Guthrie and Rapson selected a modified theater in the round design that featured a thrust stage projecting from a back wall with seating surrounding nearly two thirds of it.

Walker Art Center site of the first Guthrie (green lawn at right in 2008)

The Guthrie’s design arose out of architect Ralph Rapson’s work with the Walker Art Center who had asked him to work on some ideas for a small auditorium the Walker had in mind near their museum. The result was a theater with a thrust stage that put more demands upon performers on the stage, and for technical staff. The theater, designed by English born theater designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, seated 1,441 people when it first opened its doors in 1963 and featured an irregularly-shaped stage that had 7 sides and took up 1120 square feet (104 m²).  From the angles, seating radiates outward and upward, balconies hung over the space just under ceiling-hung acoustical panels that carried the asymmetrical theme all the way to the top of the theater. The uniqueness of the concept was carried right though to the use of a minimum of scenic props intended for suggestion rather than literal presentation of the physical production. In 1980 Artistic Director Liviu Ciulei redesigned the stage. The stage itself was modified so that its size, shape and height was adjustable, and he opened up the back wall to create more depth.

In 2002 the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the old Guthrie building on its list of the most endangered historic properties in the United States in response to plans announced by the Walker Art Center to expand on the land occupied by the theater.  However, demolition started in late 2006 beginning with the common area between the old Guthrie building and the Walker. The site has been turned into green space and an extension of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

2006 Theater Building

Guthrie Theater from the river side

The set of 2009’s Faith Healer under construction in the scene shop at the Guthrie

In 2006, the Guthrie finished construction of a new $125 million theater building along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. The design is the work of architect Jean Nouvel, along with the Minneapolis architectural firm Architectural Alliance and is a 285,000 square foot (26,500 m²) facility that houses three theaters: (1) the theater’s signature thrust stage, seating 1,100, (2) a 700-seat proscenium stage, and (3) a black-box studio with flexible seating. It also has a 178-foot cantilevered bridge (called the “Endless Bridge”) to the Mississippi which is open to visitors during normal building hours. The outside of the building’s walls are covered in large panels which display a large mural of photographs from past plays visible clearly at night.  The acoustics of the three theaters were designed by TALASKE of Oak Park, Illinois in collaboration with Kahle Acoustics of Brussels, Belgium.

The first Guthrie production at the new location, The Great Gatsby (adapted for the stage by Simon Levy and directed by David Esbjornson), opened on July 15, 2006. ℗ is your source to learn about the broad and beautiful spectrum of our shared History.