Who will take over leadership of the Guthrie Theater when Joe Dowling leaves a year from now?
For several weeks, Guthrie Theater board members have been on their phones, seeking input about the biggest decision these trustees will ever make: Who should lead the Guthrie after Joe Dowling’s 20-year tenure concludes next June?
Even one year out, the theater community is buzzing like a high school lunchroom about who the board should, and will, select.
Dowling’s consolidation of leadership and the Guthrie’s expanded mission raise the stakes.
“The Guthrie is more than a stage,” said Patricia Simmons, who heads the board’s search committee. “It must be seen as a vibrant center in the community. There are restaurants, public spaces, meeting locations. Things happen here beyond theater.”
When Dowling was hired in 1995, the Guthrie consisted of a main stage housed next to Walker Art Center and a small satellite stage. With the opening of a blue-metal, $125 million complex in 2006, the Guthrie became a town square.
One of Minnesota’s top three arts organizations, the theater can employ up to 500 people (including artists) on an annual budget of $27 million. The three stages give the Guthrie one of the highest seating capacities of any U.S. nonprofit theater — creating pressure to sell lots of tickets and also push the art form forward.
“They have to balance the question of money and a large business with the interest in having a dynamic artistry,” said Lisa Peterson, who has directed several Guthrie shows. “I would hope the future can hold both those things.”
That art-and-commerce duality raises a central question: Is the job too big for one person? Why is the Guthrie perhaps the only regional theater in the nation that eschews the model of an artistic director working alongside an executive director?
“This is how I have organized it, but it is inevitable in any organization that there will be change with a new leader,” Dowling said. “In five years, this will be a different organization.”
The new person will need to know the ropes as a CEO, shepherd new theatrical work, set a vision for greatness, manage a large workforce and keep the doors open on a town square with diverse purposes.
“Whoever takes the job has to understand that the priority is the quality of the art,” Simmons said.
Who is the ideal candidate?
Speculation about Dowling’s successor runs far and wide. Will the board go international with someone like Mark Rylance, the British actor and director who has won two Tonys and developed work here? Will it be a woman such as Peterson or Emily Mann, artistic director at the McCarter Theatre at Princeton University? Would native Minnesotan Oskar Eustis leave his perch at the Public Theater in New York?
“It’s really important that they choose someone who has run something of size,” said director Gary Gisselman. “Someone with a large vision, who understands where this theater is.”
Simmons smiled wryly when asked if experience at a major company is among the search committee’s criteria.
“That seems like a good idea,” she said. “But you don’t act on that until you bring people forward.”
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a $35 million company, raised eyebrows in the theater world when it hired Bill Rauch in 2006 as artistic director. Rauch came from Cornerstone Theater, a Los Angeles community-based company with a budget less than one-tenth the size of OSF.
“Very definitely that was a question — could a guy who ran a smaller operation run this?” said James Risser, who headed the Shakespeare Festival’s search committee. “Of course, we have a full-time executive director in charge of the business side, so that was manageable. Bill’s vision and intelligence made us like him.”