Director Michael Langham brought stability to the Guthrie

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2011 - 8:37 PM

He is credited with reviving the theater and leading it through a period of growth in the 1970s.

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Former Guthrie artistic director Michael Langham

Photo: Photo provided by Guthrie Theater

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Michael Langham, credited for reviving a flagging Guthrie Theater in 1971, died at age 91 Saturday as a result of pneumonia. Langham was artistic director at the theater from 1971 to 1977, directing signature productions of "Love's Labor's Lost," "Cyrano de Bergerac," "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Oedipus, the King." For all his noteworthy skill as a director, he is remembered for stabilizing a company that was foundering eight years after its birth in 1963.

Sheila Livingston, a longtime staff member at the Guthrie, recalled the board of directors, shortly after Langham's appointment, discussing whether it should postpone its season in 1971 to cut costs.

"Michael said he would raise money, and direct 'Cyrano' and 'Taming of the Shrew' and open them one night apart," she said. "And that was a phenomenon, a turning point for the Guthrie that brought it back to what it had been in the beginning."

Langham was an old friend of Guthrie founder Sir Tyrone Guthrie, succeeding him at Canada's Stratford Festival Theatre from 1955 to 1967. After leaving the Guthrie in 1978, Langham did two stints as head of the theater department at the Juilliard School. His roots in his native England included stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre of Great Britain. He also directed on Broadway and routinely returned to Stratford.

Designer Desmond Heeley, who recently won raves on Broadway for his work in "The Importance of Being Earnest," said, "I owe my education to Michael."

Heeley, who began his long partnership with Langham in England and continued it at Stratford, came to Minneapolis with Langham in 1971.

"To my mind, the Guthrie came to perfection with his 'Cyrano' and 'Shrew' side by side," Heeley said. "The magical thing was that everybody understood the integrity of what he did, how he achieved it."

1970s a growth period

Langham and managing director Donald Schoenbaum oversaw a period of tremendous expansion at the Guthrie. The season was extended to 45 weeks by 1975, and the touring program grew from small regional productions to national endeavors. A second space was opened, originally called Guthrie 2, and Langham brought in many of the actors and directors who defined that era of the theater -- Len Cariou, Helen Carey, Stephen Kanee and Barbara Byrne among them.

"The seven years he was at the Guthrie were the most rewarding and exciting years of my theater career," Schoenbaum said.

Jon Cranney, a longtime director and actor, worked with Langham throughout his tenure and credited him for his artistry and attention to detail.

"His production of 'Love's Labor's Lost' was pure poetry in every sense -- visual poetry, as well," said Cranney. "He got incredible performances out of people."

Langham directed 19 shows as artistic director. His last production at the Guthrie was "A Doll's House" in 1996.

Playwright Barbara Field, who first adapted "A Christmas Carol" during Langham's tenure, said Langham and his wife, director Helen Burns, were living at the home of their son, Chris, in Kent, England.

Burns had been ill for several years and required more care than could be provided at the Langham apartment in London.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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