June 2, 1993: The Guthrie's first drama was about how the theater was to be designed

  • Article by: LINDA MACK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2008 - 10:32 AM

On May 7, 1963, the Guthrie Theater opened its doors for its first performance.

On stage, a four-hour version of "Hamlet" played to the tuxedo-and-black-dress crowd of everybody-who-was-anybody, come to experience the first classical repertory theater in America.

Offstage, no less a drama had been unfolding for three years as Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the foremost director of the English-speaking theater, had locked horns with Minneapolis architect Ralph Rapson over the new playhouse's design.

Guthrie, 6-foot-8 with a prominent jaw and beaklike nose, was a domineering figure. "Almost the first thing Guthrie said when we met the first time was, `Now, young man, if I had had my choice you would not have been the architect,'" Rapson recalled.

The early design meetings were held at New York's Algonquin Hotel, where Guthrie would be surrounded by an entourage of eight to 10 people. "They'd all wait for Guthrie to indicate his stance," Rapson said, "and then they'd pounce on this Midwestern yokel.

"It became apparent early on that he had some fixed notions about the theater and wanted someone to draw up his ideas. I thought it was the architect's job to learn as much as possible about the client's needs and to have the final say. All of this got us off to a very cozy start."

Rapson, who then was head of the University of Minnesota architecture school, Minneapolis' foremost modernist, and a director of the Walker Art Center, had been doing some work for the Walker, which was planning to add an auditorium. Instead, the Walker decided to contribute $400,000 toward the Guthrie effort, a decisive step in making the theater possible, said John Cowles Jr., who in the early 1960s was editor of the Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co. and chairman of Guthrie 's steering committee.

"Ralph sketched up some ideas on the back of an envelope and estimated it would cost $1.5 million. . . . Guthrie wanted the theater to open on Day X in 1963. There was no time to have a contest among architects and no money to support a grand effort with leading architects Eero Saarinen or I.M. Pei," recalled Philip Von Blon, a local businessman who was chair of the building committee.

"I just fell into it," said Rapson.

"Guthrie was to theater what Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier was to architecture," said Rapson. "While he was a tremendously brilliant director, I never felt that he understood the architectural."

The first debate between Guthrie and Rapson was argued over what would become the theater's most revolutionary element - the thrust stage.

"Some thought it should have more versatility and be able to convert to a proscenium stage," said Rapson. "For a long time we struggled with providing a flexible theater. But I can remember Guthrie saying an all-purpose theater was a no-purpose theater."

Guthrie explained his preference for the thrust stage in his 1964 book, "A New Theatre":

The proscenium stage is deliberately designed to encourage the audience that events on stage are "really" taking place . . .; whereas the open stage discourages "illusion" and emphasizes that a play is a ritual in which the audience is invited to participate. The audience is so arranged that spectators can see one another around, and beyond, the more brightly lighted stage. This certainly does not encourage illusion. You can hardly be expected to believe that you are right there at the Court of King Arthur when just over Lancelot's left ear you can descry, dim but unmistakable, the Halversons, who keep the corner store. This, however, does emphatically . . . imply that theatre-going is a sociable, a shared experience.

Next came a painstaking study of seating and the precise shape of the stage.

"Guthrie wanted total intimacy between actor and audience," said Rapson. That meant a certain rake to the seating and a certain squeeze to the seats.

The rounded house of the Stratford Theatre, which Guthrie and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch had started near Toronto, was the obvious model. But Rapson didn't want to repeat its symmetrical tiers of seating, which he found boring.

Rapson led Guthrie through studies of various other seating plans. "I knew I wanted to do an asymmetrical house, but I didn't dare let him know it," said Rapson. "At one point he mentioned that balcony-goers were always second-class citizens," said Rapson. "From that, I said, `Why not integrate the main floor and balcony?'" The outcome was the Guthrie's one-of-a-kind seating arrangement: the "Alpine slope" rising sharply on one side of the stage, and elsewhere a steeply angled balcony very close to the stage.

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