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50 Years of Guthrie: Exclusive Speech by Joe Dowling

Wednesday June 19, 2013

The arts are a big part of Minneapolis. Creativity is born here, and great performances and works manifest from this cradle of art. This is a city that prides itself on not only the quality of offerings, but the quantity.

But, when it comes to quality, there is a mainstay that Minneapolis has turned to time and time again for outstanding contributions to the arts. For 50 years, the Guthrie Theater has provided inspiring and transcendent performances, and this weekend they’re giving even more back to the community.

First, they’ve got a fantastic celebration on the 23rd to commemorate their 50 years of existence.  There’s outdoor grilling, giveaways, candy stations, free theater classes (tapGuthrie Theater 50th Anniversary dancing, physical comedy, stage fighting, storymaking, voiceovers, etc.), special presentations and even a welcome from Mr. Joe Dowling himself! You can find the complete schedule here.

Second, they have provided us  with something very rare and special. We present to you the full, un-edited, word-for-word speech Joe Dowling gave in March to a select few people about the history of the Guthrie. This is the first time this speech has been released since March, and the message absolutely personifies why the Guthrie Theater is one of Minneapolis’ crowning institutions. Read on, and don’t forget to have some fun this Sunday at the Guthrie.


Joe Dowling Guthrie Theater MinneapolisIt was some fifty three years ago that three great men of the theater, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea and Peter Zeizler met in Guthrie’s ancestral home at Annamakerig, Co Monaghan in Ireland—to discuss the profound and original notion of providing the best in world-class theater to an American audience far from the bright lights and big budgets of Broadway.  Announcing their intentions through the good offices of the New York Times, they were encouraged when seven cities expressed interest in hosting a new repertory theater in cities around the country. And so it was, in 1960, that managing director Oliver Rea and artistic director Sir Tyrone Guthrie ventured forth into the heartland of The United States to find a place to plant their artistic garden and see it grow. 

A small plane brought the crew to Minneapolis/St. Paul and when they stepped on the tarmac, according to Sir Tyrone, “the temperature was 30 degrees below zero and the wind was a sharp, bright sword that pierced your bowels through and through”. What an accurate description of our winter discomfiture!  In Minneapolis, they met with a steering committee headed by John Cowles Jr. publisher of the Minneapolis Star. This determined group of community leaders was determined to woo Guthrie and to win out over the six rivals for his theatrical hand in marriage.

Later Guthrie wrote, “We wound up offering the rather runty apple of our artistic mission to the Twin Cities because we wanted to work there. Why? Was it the weather? The people? The river? It was the river itself that most charmed and amazed us. It had not yet frozen over and was flowing with a lively sparkle through winding gorges which are still beautiful despite being exploited in the interest of trade. Eventually the Twin Cities will realize that their river can be, and ought to be, a wonderful and life-giving amenity. It has taken London two thousand years even to begin to appreciate this about the Thames; perhaps it is not unreasonable to expect that the Twin Cities will make the most out of the Mississippi in a mere hundred.”

Well, as we all know, it has taken half of that mere hundred, but here we are. Thanks to the vision of our Board of Directors, the hard work and dedication of our staff, the munificent generosity of our numerous donors, the commitment of both state and city and the extraordinary imagination of architect, Jean Nouvel, The Guthrie Theater moved to the banks of the Mississippi River in 2006 and this year as we celebrate our golden anniversary we are supremely confident that our theater is a fixed part of the culture of our region.

While it is widely regarded as the flagship of the American Regional Theater, the foundation of the Guthrie Theater in 1963 was not the beginning of the resident theater movement in the United States. For some years before our dramatic arrival on the scene, pioneers such as Zelda Fichandler in Washington and Margo Jones in Dallas, among others, had the vision to recognize that, if theater as an art form was to prosper and thrive throughout the country, it was essential to establish resident organizations in each region that would serve their own community with a balance between contemporary and classical work. 

The creation of the Guthrie was significantly different from the other pioneer theaters. While the founders of resident theaters around the country were brave and resilient artists, they were mostly young and untried outside their own areas. When Guthrie and his colleagues decided to decentralize the American theater and create a new movement and a different theatrical energy, they were already major figures in New York and Europe and individually they brought a wealth of experience to the new enterprise.

Inevitably, the fame of Tyrone Guthrie and his original company that included Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Zoe Caldwell and George Grizzard, was such that the new institution was seen immediately as the hope of the whole movement. Joseph Wesley Zeigler in his study, REGIONAL THEATRE –THE REVOLUTIONARY STAGE, describes the expectations clearly.

Another more important possibility opened up with the emergence of The Guthrie Theater; the possibility that from the regional theater might come a National Theater 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 a long cherished dream….

It was a foolish hope and one that placed an impossible burden on the young “Minnesota miracle”. While the Guthrie has continued to evolve into a major resident institution of vital importance to its own community, it is clearly not a National Theater for America and, indeed, we should never aspire to that status. Given the vastness of the geography and the diversity of culture, a single American National Theater is not a realistic prospect or a desirable objective. What the Guthrie Theater has aspired to is to reflect back to its own community an awareness of the continuity of human feeling and experience through great literature, whatever the culture and the century. It has also been responsible for creating a standard of excellence and of community involvement that has been emulated around the country. The quality of life in our community has been enriched beyond measure by the emergence of the Guthrie and the subsequent flowering of a rich theatrical culture that has become the envy of many cities twice our size.

While many have predicted the demise of theatre as a significant art form and continually sound its death knell, I am happy that here in the upper mid-west, our theater not only survives but, given the support to create our new award-winning building, we thrive and lead a strong and innovative theater community that serves our State well.

The founder of our theater, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, was prescient forty years ago when he said, “I believe that a theater where live actors perform to an audience, which is there in the flesh before them, will survive all threats: from powerfully organized industries which pump prefabricated drama out of cans and blowers and contraptions of one kind or another. It will survive as long as mankind demands to be amused, terrified, instructed, shocked, corrupted, and delighted by tales told in a manner that will always remain mankind’s most vivid and powerful manner of telling a story. I believe,” Guthrie said, “that the purpose of theater is to show mankind to himself and thereby to show to man God’s image.”

The coming together of a group of people in the theater, to experience an act of artistic creation, has indeed a spiritual dimension. An audience relates to one another and to the performers both in a physical and a spiritual way and the influence of one on the other is profound. What makes live theater special, and indestructible, is the bond that is created in the immediate time and space. No two performances are ever the same. And each separate audience sees and hears a unique event. The immediacy of human connection is an important part of the attraction of live theater.

Human societies are defined by the genius of the artists they encourage. While statesmen and stateswomen may define the world in the immediate, it is the artists who are the true chroniclers of their age. President Kennedy said it best when he declared, “I’m certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will be remembered, not for our victories or defeats in battles or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.”  The contribution that the arts make to the human spirit is not a luxury that our society indulges in when times are good; it is a necessity that should be constantly nurtured and spread so that all can share in the power of artistic creation whatever their economic and the social circumstances.   

The arts matter to all human beings because they are a universal language that brings different cultures together and helps us to understand each other better,  because they can transform how we view ourselves and the world around us and because they can connect us to people and ideas of a different time and a different place. The arts matter in our lives because they embrace and define our civilization. In the words of distinguished British observer, John Tusa, “A nation without arts would be a nation that has stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past, and lacked curiosity about the future.” 

The elements of storytelling in theater, plot, narrative, character, spectacle, allegory, parable, metaphor … all offer opportunities for the imaginative engagement of our emotional and intellectual lives. Which by turn deepens our respect for others by broadening our awareness of the diversity in human experience? And that is why in my view, theater is the most immediate of the performing arts and the one that provides the most accessible experience to the widest public.

So the strength of theater lies in the power of the interaction between actor and audience. But in the case of the Guthrie Theater, it’s also about the importance of a broader relationship between the theater and its community. The Guthrie was always intended as a theater to serve its local community.

Not previously noted for their devotion to theater, in 1963, Minneapolis community leaders had persuaded the dynamic trio of Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler to create their repertory theater 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 theater 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 seventies, Michael Langham gave the theater a succession of brilliantly conceived classic productions that indeed pleased the masses. Liviu Ciulei, who had recently arrived from Romania, made the eighties 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 theater 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 and, most significantly, subscription numbers were falling. From a record high of 26,000 in 1990, almost 50% 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 theatre-going 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 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 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 seventeenth 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 theater 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 theater 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 theater could attract a wide audience with popular plays and, hopefully, avoid the damaging deficits that had plagued previous years, although as the current recession began to bite, that becomes more and more difficult.

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 theater programs around the country to Minneapolis. 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 theaters around the city and 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 theater. We would have three theaters in a single complex. We would bring our production departments, including scene building, costume shop and prop making 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 theater 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 theater where young artists would have the opportunity to grow and develop.

The first step on our 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 theater 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.

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 proved by The Cartier Museum in Paris, 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 theater. 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.  Our capital campaign reached $93 million from a very broad based community. The majority of donors were from this region. But, for the theater 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 theater, 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. We began an extensive campaign to ensure that legislators of both parties knew of the widespread support we had at grassroots level. Thousands of emails, phone messages, and letters flooded into the Capitol. On one occasion, a beleaguered Senator begged us to call off the email 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 for the media. Following a monumental political battle over three years – including three vetoes from Ventura – we prevailed and both the House and the Senate voted $25 million in bonds for the creation of the new theater. The new Governor, Tim Pawlenty, signed the bill and in September 2003, we broke ground for our new three theater complex that includes 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 theaters 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. These public spaces are used all day as meeting places to attract casual visitors as well as theatergoers.  The theaters 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 theaters positioned 50 feet in the air can be!

The self-designation “a national center for theater art and education” helps us to articulate the extent of our ambition. With no desire or possibility of becoming a “National Theater,” 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 have defined a “national center” here in the center of the country as a place where work will come and from which work will go.

By changing our focus, by developing a comprehensive program that both serves our local community and influences the national movement, we are fulfilling the original intention of our founders and creating a  momentum that will define theatre in America in the twenty-first century. Through co-productions and visiting companies, we have the chance to extend our relations with theatres around the country. Through our WorldStages program we have already created relationships with important international artists and companies, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the British all-male Shakespeare Company, Propeller, currently playing on our Wurtele Thrust Stage.

The strengths of the Guthrie Theater are its seminal place in the history of American regional theater, 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, our repertoire includes more contemporary writing and new plays from major American writers, such as the currently running OTHER DESERT CITIES in the Maguire Proscenium theater. 

New writing is the lifeblood of a vibrant theater and, through the work in our Dowling Studio; finally, the Guthrie Theater can play an important part in creating a new body of American literature.

The people of Minnesota, collectively and individually have made a huge investment in the future of the Guthrie Theater and in the vision we have articulated. Ours 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 sixties will thrive and prosper in the next fifty years and beyond. Present and 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 twelve 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 theater confirms my belief in the power of theater to move not only the individual, who sees the mirror held up to nature, but a whole community in pursuit of a shared ideal. As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary this spring, I hope that the initial pride in “the Minnesota Miracle” can be strengthened and that we can look forward to the next fifty years as a vital part of the culture and social life of this community. 

-Joe Dowling

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