The Guthrie took a gamble building a festival around writer Christopher Hampton. What's the critical and financial fallout?
Reviews were mixed to negative for the three plays in the just-concluded Christopher Hampton festival at the Guthrie Theater.
The box-office result was less equivocal. The theater sold only about half the total seats available for the festival. Revenue from ticket sales was half what it was three years ago for the Guthrie's three-play Tony Kushner celebration, which itself was far from sold out.
In an interview last week, Guthrie Director Joe Dowling admitted the box office was disappointing, but he said the celebrations have an equally important aesthetic function -- to introduce writers to Twin Cities audiences. Looking ahead, he said there likely will be budget cuts to avoid a fiscal-year deficit.
"The thing about the Guthrie is we can be down on one show and over on another," Dowling said. "Every year we adjust as we go. ... That might mean pay cuts, but we'll do whatever it takes to make sure we don't have a deficit. We know we're down as the season starts now, and we'll pick it up."
"Appomattox," Hampton's new play about the resonance between the Civil War and the 1960s civil rights movement, fared the best in percentage of capacity during the festival. "Tales From Hollywood" sold more tickets, but because it was in the larger thrust stage, it lagged in capacity. "Embers," a small play, managed to do only 45 percent capacity in a 200-seat theater.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 Graydon Royce 612-673-7299
Three scenes stick in my head as I look back at the Hampton Festival.
The first is from April 2009. Joe Dowling was spreading the Tony Kushner gospel on a warm evening at Plymouth Congregational Church.
"We need to introduce Tony Kushner to our community," the Guthrie's director said. "He's not a household name like Arthur Miller, or Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare."
Well. If the Guthrie felt it needed to bang the drum for Kushner, a man whose celebrity and charisma was at least attached to some high-profile causes and plays, how could Christopher Hampton stand a chance to electrify audiences? Hampton, polite and articulate and brainy, is a quiet man whose fame derives primarily from adaptations and translations. When you think of "Art" or "God of Carnage," you think of playwright Yazmina Reza, not Hampton, who translated those plays into English. The point is not necessarily to compare Kushner -- who leads with his chin -- and the taciturn Hampton. The point is: Was the Guthrie up to the challenge of promoting someone so little-known?
The second scene was a sparsely attended Wednesday matinee for "Tales From Hollywood." "There's hardly anyone here," a woman sitting behind me said to her companion.
No, there wasn't. A day later, a "friend of the Guthrie" forwarded an e-mail that had offered patrons free tickets for an evening performance of "Hollywood." The aroma of box-office disaster was on the wind.
Lastly, there were empty seats at opening night of "Appomattox" but what mattered more was the opening scene, with Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass speaking in dialogue plucked from an ABC "After School Special." Could the entire act be so wooden and presentational? It could; it was. Lots of people took intermission as permission to escape -- which was unfortunate because the second act has promise.
Selling seats is not a theater's paramount mission. But a festival is about lively throngs, exciting personalities and energy that builds on itself. Here's hoping that the Guthrie's next festival has all those ingredients.
Christopher Hampton would not have been on my top-50 list of living playwrights who are deserving of a multiple-play festival at the Guthrie. The considerable resources expended on the Hampton effort would have been better spent on a celebration centered on, say, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sarah Ruhl, Tarell Alvin McCraney, David Henry Hwang, Lynn Nottage or Edward Albee. If we had to go global, Tom Stoppard, Wole Soyinka and Athol Fugard are stronger contenders.
After seeing "Tales From Hollywood," "Appomattox" and "Embers," I sensed a playwright with too little interest in the unique creative opportunities that the stage has to offer. These talky works suggest that the playwright is a frustrated novelist taking it out on hapless theatergoers.
"Tales," which was vividly animated by director Ethan McSweeny, featured magnetic performances by Lee Sellars, Stephen Yoakam and Allison Daugherty. In "Appomattox," Shawn Hamilton, who played the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and Harry Groener, who played Lyndon Johnson, were sparks of lightning in heavy clouds.
But the Hampton fest never rose to the bar that the Guthrie set with its inaugural Tony Kushner festival in 2009. Kushner got at contemporary themes and issues in a way that made his work immediat and vital.
There was no "Caroline, or Change" or "Tiny Kushner" to remember this time around -- no searing production that could be taken on the road to Berkeley and London as a gorgeous emblem of Twin Cities theater.
Joe Dowling's legacy is secure, no doubt. Thousands see it every day, either through shows or simply by driving by the skyline-changing edifice on the Mississippi that he commissioned from architect Jean Nouvel. I hope that the Hampton festival does not become for Dowling what "Babes in Arms" was for his predecessor, Garland Wright -- an ambitious misfire in the denouement of an estimable tenure.