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Archive for Thursday, December 6, 2001

Theater facing final act

Minneapolis may draw curtains on Guthrie Theater’s original home

December 6, 2001

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— It has been four decades since Sir Tyrone Guthrie, determined to escape the high costs and commercial pressures of Broadway, set his sights on the nation's heartland.

Guthrie eventually chose Minneapolis over six other cities to serve as host of his namesake theater, and in the years since, the Guthrie has become a beloved destination for Upper Midwest arts lovers and a leading player on the national scene. But now, the building where the Guthrie was born appears to be in its final act.





The Walker Art Center wants to demolish the adjacent theater as part of a $90 million expansion, and the Guthrie acting company plans to move to a new, three-stage complex along the Mississippi River in 2005.

In November, the Minneapolis City Council approved a demolition permit that could eventually lead to the Guthrie's razing.

Some preservationists, as well as the Guthrie's architect, are protesting the decision to tear down the glass-fronted theater and its signature thrust stage where the Guthrie has been since opening near downtown Minneapolis in 1963.

"The Guthrie is the Carnegie Hall of the Midwest," said Paul Metsa, a local musician who has helped organize the Save the Guthrie campaign.

But officials at the 122-year-old Walker, itself one of Minnesota's most important cultural institutions, say they need new space to accommodate crowds that have more than doubled since the museum's last expansion in 1984.

And they contend that no one has stepped forward with money and a workable vision for keeping the Guthrie alive. Proposals so far for a mix of theatrical and musical programs would be too costly, they say.

"You know it's wonderful for people to dream and I hate to be the burster of people's dreams but there is a reality here," said Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker.

Officials of both the Walker and the Guthrie also point out that the Guthrie will continue in a bigger space, and that its thrust stage surrounded by the audience on three sides will be re-created in the new complex.

"The Guthrie is not going away. The Guthrie is not disappearing," Halbreich said. "The Guthrie is moving to the river, taking its name, its programs and all of the equipment in the building with it."

Leading the way

Minneapolis gained a national reputation in the theater world when Guthrie, a noted British stage director, chose the Midwestern city from among seven candidates to build a regional theater.

The T.B. Walker Foundation agreed to donate the land behind the Walker Art Center and to contribute $400,000 for construction. The Guthrie opened May 7, 1963, with a production of "Hamlet" directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Actors Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were in the Guthrie's original acting company.

Future Emmy winners David Hyde Pierce ("Frasier") and Peter MacNicol ("Ally McBeal") polished their acting skills on the Guthrie stage. Last March, Patrick Stewart and Mercedes Ruehl played to sold-out audiences at the Guthrie in a critically acclaimed production of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And two-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore ("The End of the Affair," "Boogie Nights") was in a 1988 production of "Hamlet" at the Guthrie.

Since its founding, the Guthrie has been in the forefront of American regional theater and has helped spark a theater boom that has made the Twin Cities one of the hottest scenes for playgoers outside of Broadway. In 1982, the Guthrie was recognized for its contributions to American theater with a Tony Award.

Among its accomplishments, the Guthrie in 1968 became the first resident theater to undertake a national tour, sending "The House of Atreus" and "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" to theaters in New York and Los Angeles. In 1990, the Guthrie staged ambitious, back-to-back productions of Shakespeare's history plays, "Richard II," "Henry IV" (parts 1 and 2) and "Henry V."

The stage's the thing

The Guthrie's thrust stage is ideal for mounting Shakespeare and classical works. The audience looks down at the actors instead of up, and no one sits more than 55 feet from the stage.

But Guthrie officials say the theater's needs have outgrown its 85,000-square-foot space. Since it began with a summer festival of four plays, the Guthrie has grown to a year-round program playing to more than 500,000 theatergoers in two theaters, including the Guthrie Lab in Minneapolis, and on an annual tour of the five-state region.

Plans for the new, $100 million "Guthrie on the River" include the thrust-stage theater, a proscenium or "picture frame" stage favorable for modern-day plays and a smaller studio stage for experimental works. The Guthrie also would be able to build sets onsite instead of having to build them elsewhere, then disassemble them and move them to the theater.

The new space, being designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, also will feature expanded bathroom and dining areas, a place to display the Guthrie's history and classroom space for the thousands of schoolchildren who get their first taste of live theater at the Guthrie.

While praising the original Guthrie design by Minneapolis architect Ralph Rapson, Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling said that the theater's facade and interior have been renovated several times and no longer reflect Rapson's vision.

Rapson, now 87, has been among those fighting for the Guthrie. He says renovations have been minor and that knocking the theater down would be "a great tragedy."

Metsa, who has performed at the Guthrie, calls the theater "acoustically pristine." He also said the Guthrie has historic significance because of the musical greats who have played there, including Bruce Springsteen, John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin and guitarist Leo Kottke, who recorded a live album at the Guthrie.

Demolition a go

A state study of the Guthrie's cultural and historic importance should be complete in December. But even if the theater is deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, Walker officials say they won't consent to the designation.

The Walker won a demolition permit from the city that is good for one year and can be extended for another. The Walker plans to begin construction next spring of a parking garage that will affect the Guthrie's back wall, but the Guthrie will remain open during the Walker expansion until the theater company relocates.

In October, the Walker announced that an independent analysis found no viable reuse options for the Guthrie building. But critics call the study flawed and say more time should be given for public comment.

"I find it really disappointing that an art museum is fighting so hard to destroy a work of art," said Save the Guthrie member Colleen Sheehy, director of education at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

Walker officials counter that they have reached out to neighborhood groups for their views and that the Guthrie which has a rent-free lease through 2038 wants to move.

While theatergoers may have a sentimental attachment to the Guthrie, officials of both the Walker and Guthrie believe they will create new memories when the theater moves into its new space.

"In truth, if you really ask people about their experiences in the Guthrie, they complain that there are not enough bathrooms, that the seats are too close together, and their legs don't fit in," Halbreich said.

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