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.”

Where the ideas are

Jack Reuler, artistic director and founder of Mixed Blood in Minneapolis, throws another consideration into the mix. The artistry of an artistic director is producing, he said, not directing.

“We often get bogged down in the idea of thinking of directors who have great chops,” Reuler said. “Someone who is a great producer and who knows where the ideas are is not to be minimized.”

Tyrone Guthrie envisioned his namesake theater as a summer festival in 1963. He and a company of actors would perform four plays in repertory.

A dramatic swirl of personalities and conflict endangered the theater after Guthrie left in 1966, and it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the theater’s survival was assured. Artistic director Michael Langham (1971-77) rightly receives credit, but less noted was the presence of Donald Schoenbaum, a hard-fisted and demanding managing director who was the glue for 17 years, in good and bad times.

In 1985, partly as a reaction to fighting between Schoenbaum and former artistic director Liviu Ciulei, the board voted to make the artistic director the CEO of the institution. The position of managing director continued through the Garland Wright years and into the first decade of Dowling’s tenure. In 2006, Dowling set up a system of four senior vice presidents with him as the single director.

“That was the structure Joe wanted,” said David Hawkanson, Steppenwolf’s executive director, who was Dowling’s managing director for six years. “It’s not the structure I prefer. The challenges are so sophisticated and demanding that there is strength in dual partnerships.”

Rick Shiomi, who founded Mu Performing Arts in the Twin Cities, also voices concerns about the challenge of finding an artistic visionary.

“Is that person going to be responsible for the whole building, or for running the artistic side of the company?” Shiomi asked. “The Guthrie has to be known as a theatrical place, and the artistic director shouldn’t have to worry whether the restaurants are making money or how many weddings are taking place.”

A coveted job

The Guthrie hopes to hire someone early next year to work with Dowling in a transition until he leaves in June.

The theater has struggled to fill out the big shoulders of its new building. In fiscal 2005-06 — the final season on Vineland Place — it sold about 319,000 tickets to 348 performances for an average of 918 per performance. In 2012-13, 723 performances sold 375,700 tickets — a per-show average of 519. Season subscribers have fallen to about 17,000 from 25,000 in the same period. Last year, the theater had its first operating deficit ($438,000) in 19 years, attributable to drops in ticket income. Individual contributions and draws from endowment — both relatively steady in the past three years — make up about 45 percent of revenue.

“I’m not a keen current observer, but the demands of those three stages are very large, and I’m not sure the demographics of the Twin Cities can sustain that,” said Hawkanson, a Minnesota native. “I hope that doesn’t mean they dumb down the programming.”

On a deeper level, some theater artists worry that the Guthrie has fallen behind as an innovator and leader nationally. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago has sent many celebrated productions to Broadway in the past 20 years. Steppenwolf’s Tracy Letts won Tonys and Pulitzers for “August: Osage County.”

The Guthrie has made efforts in this regard, but it has not landed a new show on Broadway during Dowling’s tenure.

“For the Guthrie to regain its place in the national arena, we have to start producing new work,” said Peter Rothstein of Theater Latté Da, who directs at the Guthrie.

Dowling agrees that “we didn’t do as good a job as we could” to develop new plays.

“That will take a reordering of priorities,” he said, adding that new work is a challenge “when you have an 1,100-seat house to fill.”

He added that producing in the 200-seat studio that bears his name is “virtually impossible, because of the economics.”

Director Gisselman feels the way back to national leadership is through developing a true company of actors and playwrights and designers.

Clearly, with these competing interests, prescriptions and challenges, the search committee faces what Hawkanson calls the “most important decision that board will make.”