Tyrone Guthrie recalled in his memoir that “even the audience had stage fright” when his new theater opened “Hamlet” on May 7, 1963. This was a new and nervy proposition — planting a resident company of established actors performing the classics away from the hot house of New York.
“It is a long way from Broadway and the people have a sort of Scandinavian freshness,” Guthrie told Life Magazine in a picture story headlined “Miracle in Minneapolis.”
For all the effervescence, however, the theater was a fragile venture in those early years, and the great man’s vision was difficult to sustain. Seven artistic directors have introduced their own innovations, tinkered with Guthrie’s original idea, reshaped the mission, the stage and even the building. The cumulative effect has been an evolution of Guthrie’s original idea.
The theater today encompasses three stages, draws national and international talent and attention; it is the state’s second-largest arts organization, with an annual budget of $28 million and attendance last year of more than 420,000. The stories of these seven leaders illustrate how Guthrie’s experiment on the prairie has become a flagship of the regional theater movement.
“The Guthrie legitimized a community’s deep investment in the arts, not only here but all across the nation,” said Lou Bellamy, founder of Penumbra Theatre.
TYRONE GUTHRIE, 1963-66
Guthrie’s credentials bespoke his reputation as an eminently respected member of the theater establishment. His work had been admired for three decades by the time he landed in Minnesota. Shakespeare was his meat, and he demanded that actors know the classics.
Guthrie disliked the status quo, the restrictions of prosceniums and the hidebound productions that did not stretch and demand more of classics. His asymmetrical thrust stage brought audiences closer, his stagings moved Shakespeare into the modern age and his vision of regional theater brought the art form away from New York and London.
Guthrie, whose advent in Minneapolis was lauded by luminaries worldwide, loved to rub elbows with community-theater types. He visited small Minnesota towns to evangelize and encourage audiences to have a taste of his new experiment. Eccentric in appearance and manner, he was charismatic and curious, prone to asking questions of those who might have come to interview him.
His personable charm, however, was not to be mistaken as laxity when it came to the stage. As a director, Guthrie’s productions were marked by extraordinary attention to detail. His “Hamlet” was uncut and lasted four hours on the theater’s opening, May 7, 1963, a beastly hot night. The national critics were in the packed house, including the New York Times’ Walter Kerr, who gave a rave review.
Guthrie was artistic director for three seasons, but returned from his Irish farm each year through 1969 to stage productions. He died in 1971.
Dan Sullivan: He was not all fireworks and razzle-dazzle. His “Three Sisters” was exquisite, gentle and funny, but not uproariously so. I remember crashing his first rehearsal of “Hamlet.” He was leading George Grizzard around, with his hand on his shoulder, saying, “Now, you go over here, George.” One time when I was with the New York Times, I came back in the winter and I was trudging through the snow and I looked up at that building with the lights gleaming inside and I went in to the warmth of the performance and I just thought to myself, this is what theater should be about.
Sullivan covered Guthrie’s first two seasons for the Minneapolis Tribune and later returned as a New York Times critic to review Guthrie productions.
Sage Cowles: Guthrie wore Birkenstocks with no socks in all weather. When he looked at you, he looked right at you, there was that wonderful air of engagement. We picked up Tony and Judith [Guthrie and his wife] in their apartment in Kenwood and there was a lot of laundry in the hallway you had to go through to get to them. They did not stand on ceremony. Judith was very funny and Tony was very direct. They were so much themselves and elegant in their very direct way. Tony would say to stay as long as you want and come back another night. And never mind about reading the program first. Be open, see if you like it. You’re there to see what goes on and if you’re bored, go on home and maybe come back another day.
Cowles’ philanthropist husband, John, was central in bringing Guthrie to the Twin Cities.
DOUGLAS CAMPBELL, 1966-67
Guthrie left the company in Campbell’s hands with the assumption that his protégé would make a seamless transition. Campbell (left, in "Saint Joan" in 1964) was with Guthrie at the Stratford Festival, and it was Campbell who directed Hume Cronyn in “The Miser,” which was the big hit of that first 1963 season at the Guthrie. The next year, Guthrie directed Campbell in “Volpone” with dazzling results. “Dougie,” as he was known, also brought a bit of theatrical royalty to the Twin Cities in the person of his mother-in-law, Dame Sybil Thorndike, whom Campbell would bring in to read Shakespeare scripts with the company.
Campbell’s “Skin of Their Teeth” was praised by Stanley Kauffmann in the New York Times, and Campbell had amazing natural gifts on stage, but he clashed with the board and management from the outset, and was gone within a year. This ushered in a three-year interim in which the Guthrie was run by Peter Zeisler, Edward Payson Call and Mel Shapiro.
Jon Cranney: I remember they had come to loggerheads, and Doug’s departure was going to be announced to the press, so they called a company and staff meeting in the house. Peter Zeisler stood up and said Doug has something he needs to say. It wasn’t a very long speech; Doug said he didn’t get along with these guys — the management, which was Zeisler. Then he stood up — he was sitting on the edge of the stage — walked upstage, turned and walked all the way up the steps of the Alpine Slope and when he got to the top, he turned, waved like he was saluting, and disappeared out the door.
Cranney was an actor, stage and production manager for many years at the Guthrie.
MICHAEL LANGHAM, 1971-77
Langham consolidated the Guthrie, both artistically and financially. “Michael Langham saved the Guthrie, there is no debating that,” said former critic Roy Close. “That there is no theater in the current Guthrie named for Langham is a scandal.”
Langham succeeded Guthrie at Stratford and ran that theater for 12 years. The situation was so dire when he arrived that the board of directors had discussed canceling the 1971 season.
“Michael said he would raise money, and direct ‘Cyrano’ and ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and open them one night apart,” said longtime staff member Sheila Livingstone in 2011. “And that was a turning point for the Guthrie that brought it back to what it had been in the beginning.”
Langham tripled ticket revenues, quadrupled the number of subscribers and began an endowment fund. He took some heat for his populist play choices — a necessity, he said, to re-establish the box office. His reliance on Canadian actors provoked tongue-in-cheek references to the Guthrie as the “Maple Leaf Playhouse.”
Conservative play selection or not, Langham’s direction was lauded for his attention to detail — not surprising, considering his tutelage with Guthrie. “Everyone understood the integrity of what he did and how he achieved it,” said designer Desmond Heeley in a 2011 obituary for Langham.
Peter Michael Goetz: During the run of “Of Mice and Men,” Michael called me into his office to have a chat. I was petrified. I sat opposite his imposing desk as he addressed me in his impressive King’s English-perfect speech. “You are a bit large,” he said. “You must lose weight and make yourself available for more leading roles. Six weeks hence we will be opening the play ‘Becket’ and I would like you to play Becket. Can you lose 40 pounds in six weeks?” I was nodding yes enthusiastically and six weeks later after performing nightly in the other shows in rep and rehearsing “Becket” and running on the track next to the theater and eating nothing but radishes I opened in “Becket” and fainted during the curtain call at the first preview.
Goetz has acted at the Guthrie Theater for more than 40 years.
ALVIN EPSTEIN, 1978-79
Following Langham’s tenure of relative calm, the Guthrie chose its first American artistic director. Epstein came from the Yale Repertory Theater, and the early chatter was that he would loosen up the Guthrie with more contemporary, unconventional and experimental choices.
Epstein’s approach did not sit well with audiences. Attendance dropped and actors left.
“Epstein just didn’t know his business and he didn’t know how to deal with the actors in putting the show on stage,” said Ken Ruta in a 1979 Minneapolis Star article.
Epstein’s fall was not for lack of talent, said Roy Close. “But he was a bad fit at the time. There was a lot of dissatisfaction with his choice of plays. This was a city that had decided it had a theater that did Shakespeare and the classics, and Epstein was doing contemporary American plays that no one liked.” Epstein resigned in June 1979.
Barbara Field: He is an extremely lovely man and a very great actor, a good theater person with some elegant taste, but he didn’t know how to run an organization and he was not given a lot of help. The naivete in programming. His great idea was to stop “Christmas Carol” and substitute two plays by Marivaux and Diderot. It was things like that. On the good side, though, he had gone on a trip to Russia and had connected with Anatoly Efros. He brought him back to do two plays in 1978 and 1979 and those opened a horizon for us. Efros was an extraordinary director and it was a significant achievement and a lot of fun. Efros was accompanied by a James Bond-gorgeous blonde interpreter. I asked her, “You’re KGB?” and she said “Yes, of course.”
Playwright Field, the adaptor of “A Christmas Carol,” also adapted the two Russian plays directed by Efros.
LIVIU CIULEI, 1980-85
The Romanian-born auteur, who also was an architect, reshaped the Guthrie’s physical stage to suit a vision of theater as a vehicle of social justice. His rigorous aesthetic was realized in what is perhaps his most memorable production, “The Tempest.” He staged the Shakespearean drama with an arresting design that included storm wreckage in a moat of blood. This reprise of his earlier European production served as a startling confirmation of Ciulei’s theatrical vision.
Ciulei brought along a dramaturg, Miki Lupu, to help deepen the productions. And he invited international directors such as Lucian Pintilie, who directed a contemporary version of Molière’s “Tartuffe” that, without changing the text, transposed a farce of 17th-century religious hypocrisy into a pointedly funny work about 20th-century political oppression.
“Liviu liked provocative plays that annoyed or excited people,” said actor and children’s book author Isabell Monk O’Connor, who has acted under the Guthrie’s past three artistic directors. “What a kind man. He introduced the Guthrie to the idea of a resident dramaturg when that idea was relatively new to America. And he saw people’s talents and how those would fit with his strong vision.”
Sally Wingert: Liviu made a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” into an astonishing visual world. He brought a play that can sometimes be seen as silly a magical gravity. My least favorite experience with Liviu was “The Broken Jug.” He was losing his hearing at that point and couldn’t hear us, so he kept telling us to be louder. All the questions at the talkbacks were about why we’re shouting so much.
Wingert began acting regularly at the Guthrie in the mid-1980s.
Stephen Yoakam: Liviu’s work had a heightened sense of irony, rigorous gesture and architectural balance. His “Tempest” was unbelievably arresting and visually stunning. It was like a living Greek tragedy, layered all the way to the back wall.
Yoakam has acted at the Guthrie under three artistic directors, starting with Ciulei.
GARLAND WRIGHT, 1986-95
A painter trapped in a director’s body, Garland Wright first directed at the Guthrie during Ciulei’s debut season. His early 1980s production of Len Jenkin’s adaptation of Voltaire’s “Candide” looked like an old master’s carnival. The two leaders, in some ways, were simpatico. One flashed imagination for political purposes; the other created visually arresting work that showed beauty even in the depths.
Broadway ambitions bookended Wright’s tenure. Lee Breuer’s “The Gospel at Colonus” went to Broadway early in Wright’s reign. Rogers’ and Hart’s “Babes in Arms,” which Wright directed with an eye firmly fixed on Times Square, bombed just as he was leaving the theater, losing a substantial amount of money.
In between those shows, Wright invited New York director JoAnne Akalaitis in for a memorable marathon production of Jean Genet’s 1961 epic “The Screens.” Mike Steele called this work, about the Algerian revolution, a “sprawling, messy hurricane.”
Working with fellow director Charles Newell, Wright also tackled Shakespeare’s history plays (“Richard II,” “King Henry IV” and “King Henry V”) as an epic. And he directed a Greek cycle of “Iphigeneia at Aulis,” “Agamemnon” and “Electra” that is fondly remembered.
Miki Lupu: Garland called theater a shared act of imagination, which was a meaningful, rich, diverse extension of what Liviu believed.
Lupu, a Romanian intellectual, was dramaturg at the Guthrie from 1980 to 2013.
Stephen Yoakam: Garland had an exquisite painter’s eye. He sought to put moving masterpieces on the Guthrie stage. His “Misanthrope” was a visual and verbal banquet with a final image of hundreds of roses as the lights went down to a very quiet spot.
Isabell Monk O’Connor: Garland was interested in the fantasy part of our human existence. He tried to lift us to the stars and brought beauty to even the most horrible human experience.
Monk O’Connor has acted at the Guthrie under the past three artistic directors.
JOE DOWLING, 1995-
The fiscal hole that Wright left created the yearning for a leader like Dowling, who combines artistic vision with managerial acumen. Where other Guthrie leaders clashed with managing directors — Ciulei left over disagreements about spending — Dowling presides solo atop the theater.
His enduring legacy will undoubtedly be the $125 million skyline-changing edifice that opened on the banks of the Mississippi in downtown Minneapolis in 2006. While not beloved by all, the Jean Nouvel-designed blue complex is a new city landmark.
His tenure, by far the longest in the theater’s history, has been marked by artistic successes of shows that pack butts in seats, including his own frothy productions of “Pirates of Penzance” and “H.M.S. Pinafore.” But Dowling also has taken large-scale risks, from the underwhelming Christopher Hampton festival to the adaptation of Louise Erdrich’s “The Master Butchers’ Singing Club” and a Tony Kushner festival that included a world premiere play as well as Marcela Lorca’s landmark production of the musical “Caroline, or Change,” starring Greta Oglesby.
The Dowling era also includes memorable productions by David Esbjornson of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with stars Patrick Stewart and Mercedes Ruhl. Add Lisa Peterson’s luminous production of Ellen McLaughlin’s “Oedipus” and Ethan McSweeny’s “Six Degrees of Separation” to a legacy that is still unfolding.
Stephen Yoakam: Joe has been a great champion of the writing — of storytelling — with visual attention to poetic realism in the work. At the same time, he allows for wry humor to shine through.
Sally French: When we went to Ireland, the taxi drivers all knew the name Joe Dowling. He’s a titan there, and here, too, because he has a broad vision of the theater beyond what is onstage.
Sally French is a longtime arts advocate and teacher.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 / Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299