The Guthrie Theater has identified a successor to Joe Dowling, who will retire June 30 after leading one of Minnesota’s cultural cornerstones for 20 years.
Multiple sources have confirmed that a search committee will present its recommended candidate to the Guthrie’s board of directors at its next meeting on Feb. 19.
Guthrie spokeswoman Trish Santini would say only that the board would announce a new artistic director “before March.”
The Guthrie is considered a plum post because of its prominence as one of the nation’s top regional theaters. But while its considerable resources are a lure — whoever leads it is likely to haul in one of the larger paychecks in the theater world — the position can be a challenge.
The Guthrie’s new three-theater complex, Dowling’s greatest legacy, competes for ticket buyers in a diverse and growing theater community. Balancing economic necessity against artistic mission is a delicate act in a metro area saturated with cultural choices.
Potential names include Bill Rauch, artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Diane Paulus, artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard; Lisa Peterson, who has directed several Guthrie productions; Martha Lavey, who is leaving the top post at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director at Baltimore’s Center Stage.
Oskar Eustis, a Minnesota native who is artistic director at the Public Theater in New York City, was once considered a leading candidate but reportedly withdrew from consideration recently.
Two other potential candidates also have taken themselves out of the running: Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theatre at Princeton University, and actor/director Mark Rylance, who has often worked at the Guthrie.
A daunting task
Dowling’s replacement is expected to begin work this spring, in a transition period before he departs.
The new director will face the task of maintaining the Guthrie’s place in the pecking order of national theaters. Although historically prominent for its role in galvanizing the U.S. regional theater movement with its founding in 1963, the company has struggled to move the needle on attendance since Dowling opened the $125 million complex on the downtown Minneapolis riverfront in 2006.
Despite the building increasing the Guthrie’s seating capacity and physical footprint, attendance has flattened after peaking at around 400,000 a year from fall 2008 to summer 2012. In fiscal 2013-14, the theater sold 358,600 tickets, compared with 329,349 the final year in its original home on Vineland Place.
Once regarded as the largest regional theater in the United States, based on budget size, the Guthrie has not been able to match the growth at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which reported revenue of $35 million in 2013, or the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, a three-stage complex with $50 million in revenue.
The Guthrie’s budget jumped to $24.1 million after the move in 2006-07, rose to $28.8 million in 2011-12 and then dropped back to $25.8 million in 2013-14 — a year that saw the theater go dark in January in a belt-tightening move.
Another challenge will be developing productions that can be transferred elsewhere. For example, the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf, both in Chicago, have burnished their reputations — and fattened their bottom lines — by sending several productions to Broadway. This is a largely unrealized goal at the Guthrie.
Unusual leadership setup
The new director also will be presented with a leadership structure that is unusual in the business.
Most American theaters have a two-headed approach, with one person clearly in charge but sharing power. Dowling has been unrivaled in the organization since former managing director Tom Proehl left in 2006. Rather than hiring a strong No. 2, Dowling opted to spread responsibility among four individuals, with himself alone at the top rung.
It is widely anticipated that the Guthrie’s new director will reinstitute the two-headed model, although search committee chairwoman Patricia Simmons made it clear in an interview last year that the theater was searching for a single individual. That person would then be free to hire a managing director.
Dowling will direct three shows in the next five months in his final lap around the Guthrie stage. “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” which opens in previews this weekend, is his third staging of the Shakespeare classic. In April, he will mount Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
Dowling will conclude his career here with “Juno and the Paycock,” opening at the end of May. Dowling’s 1988 Broadway staging of that play by fellow Irishman Seán O’Casey introduced him to American audiences. He took the helm at the Guthrie seven years later, after the resignation of Garland Wright.