Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


It seems almost like a plot twist in a piece of theater: that a historic deficit should be announced on the heels of a historic success. Riding high on acclaim for its production of three of Shakespeare's history plays, leaders of the Guthrie Theater had the unenviable task of reporting a $3.8 million deficit — the largest in its history — for the 2023 fiscal year.

A three-play Shakespeare marathon is not to everyone's taste. But Minnesotans should recognize that the Guthrie is more than a preserver of classical theater. It is a significant asset to the state and a major contributor to our quality of life. It expends considerable effort on diverse and accessible programing. It deserves robust public support.

The juxtaposition of an artistic highlight with a discouraging financial report naturally leads to speculation about the cause. Certainly the theater's management erred in some of its projections. But those projections concerned how quickly the theater could recover from the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, an event that has confounded every arts organization you could name — not to mention law enforcement, education, commerce and innumerable other segments of society.

The Guthrie counted 353,000 patrons before the pandemic shuttered its doors and attendance crashed to zero. The management team thought the audience would rebound to 325,000 in fiscal year 2023. Instead, it brought in only 300,000 — assuredly below projections, but better than many other theaters could claim.

"Audiences [nationally] have been slow to come back," Jack Reuler, artistic director emeritus of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, told an editorial writer. "I would say if [the Guthrie] were at 300,000 compared to 350,000, that is a strong comeback. … And they have some really strong stuff this year at the box office, so I wouldn't be surprised if they were back at pre-pandemic levels in fiscal year '24."

Reuler, who built Mixed Blood's reputation partly on his passion for breaking away from traditional theater, said he'd seen all three of the Guthrie's history plays and found them "a positive experience. … It's almost heresy for me to say I really liked Shakespeare, but I liked the epic nature of the whole project."

The history plays — "Richard II," "Henry IV" and "Henry V," performed in repertory as was once the Guthrie's tradition — have been a "fantastic" success, according to Trisha Kirk, the Guthrie's managing director. "It isn't that we program Shakespeare and expect to have 100% of capacity," she said. "But [to have] people from 46 states coming in? That's the kind of impact that we see in an entire season, usually."

Kirk told an editorial writer that it would be difficult to find a "smoking gun" that caused last year's deficit, because many factors that affect the theater's financial status are interrelated. She cited the resumption of food services as an example. Expecting the return of more patrons, she said, the theater moved too quickly to restart its food service. "We did go from offering nothing to try to get back to offering something," she said. "In hindsight, I would say we started too soon."

And there were other factors. While state government continues to be a strong source of funding, individual benefactors and foundation support tend to fluctuate. And "corporate support for the arts is declining," Kirk said. "That is just a simple fact." Meanwhile, audiences may have been kept low by fear of urban crime and by the pandemic having broken their habit of going to live theater. Arts administrators, she said, all know about "the recency effect" — that is, that people are more likely to attend an arts event if they have recently been to an arts event.

"We're just needing to get people back in the habit," Kirk said.

For going on three generations, the Guthrie has played a vital role in educating the public about the dramatic arts. We hope Minnesotans listen to Kirk's message — that the more theater they see, the more they will want to see. We also hope that they, as well as the Guthrie's large community of individual and corporate benefactors, will give the theater the support it needs to thrive.