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Guthrie Theater

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Guthrie Theater, riverside view

The exterior of the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (818 South Second Street). Photograph by Flickr user Joe Wolf, July 2, 2018. CC BY-ND 2.0.

The Guthrie Theater was one of the first major resident theaters to be established in the United States. It was founded by Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea, and Peter Zeisler, who wanted to bring a professional theater company with a classical repertoire to a relatively small American city. Minneapolis was chosen to be the home for Guthrie’s company, which has supported and inspired many artists in Minnesota and played a major role in developing the Twin Cities’ theater scene.

Before the 1960s, the Twin Cities was a quiet place when it came to theater. Certainly, there were theaters, such as the Old Log Theater and Theater in the Round Players, but the scale of the local scene was relatively small.

In 1959, Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea, and Peter Zeisler had grown tired of mainstream theater. Guthrie stated that there were “too many actors in New York and London, and not enough elsewhere.” Inspired to counteract the poor distribution of professional theaters across the world, the three men devised to bring a professional, residential theater company to a smaller city.

On September 30, 1959, an advertisement in the New York Times sought out cities interested in having a resident theater. Seven cities responded, and the three men visited each of them. Of those, Minneapolis gained the most interest from Guthrie. It was attractive to Guthrie because it was large enough to support a theater financially but small enough that it would be the most prominent venue in town.

The T. B Walker Foundation donated land next to the Walker Art Center at 725 Vineland Place for the new theater to be built, and the state of Minnesota raised over $2.2 million for the project. The building was designed by architect Ralph Rapson, and construction began in the summer of 1960.

On May 7, 1963, the Guthrie Theater opened with a production of Hamlet directed by Guthrie himself, who had been knighted two years earlier. Minnesotans were eager to see their new theater company—so much so that their first season started with 22,000 season ticket holders. In response, the Guthrie lengthened its seasons by adding shows and extending runs.

Although the Guthrie was becoming a major success story, the company needed room to grow. Originally, its building was supposed to have more offices, larger set shops, and rehearsal spaces. In the late 1960s, the Walker Art Center was rebuilt, allowing the Guthrie to add those areas. There was still a need, however, for one crucial amenity: a second stage.

At Vineland Place, the Guthrie only had one stage: a 1,441-seat thrust. Many renowned theaters, including the National Theatre in London, had multiple stages that allowed a company to mount a variety of shows at the same time. Where the Guthrie’s thrust stage (one open to the audience on three sides) was meant for playing large-scale classics, a second stage could be used to put on more contemporary, smaller-scale plays.

The Guthrie made multiple attempts to establish a second stage. Such spaces were the Crawford Livingston stage, The Other Place, Guthrie 2, and Guthrie Lab. Though most of these lasted for only a few seasons, they provided a venue for other local theater companies to perform and gain recognition from the Twin Cities community.

As it grew in the 1990s, the company looked towards another expansion. By then, however, it had outgrown Vineland Place, so the company moved to downtown Minneapolis by the Mississippi River. The new Guthrie Theater, designed by Jean Nouvel, came equipped with three performance spaces (one modeled after the stage in the original Guthrie), a larger set and costume shops, rehearsal spaces, and offices. The project was completed in 2006 at a total cost of $125 million.

The Guthrie Theater continues to thrive in its new location. As it did at Vineland Place, the new Guthrie not only performs but also educates and trains young actors. It also partners with the University of Minnesota’s BFA acting program and hosts workshops and events for theater companies across the state.

As of 2019, the Guthrie has had eight artistic directors: Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1963-1966), Douglas Campbell (1966–1967), Michael Langham (1971–1977), Alvin Epstein (1978–1980), Liviu Ciulei (1980–1985), Garland Wright (1986–1995), Joe Dowling (1995–2015), and Joseph Haj (2015–present)

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149.E.2.2F (box 42)
T.B Walker Foundation records
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00100.xml
Description: Project files and administrative records of the T.B. Walker Foundation, the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Foundation, and the Guthrie Theater Foundation, 1925–1984.

Carr, David. “Peter Zeisler, 81, Co-Founder of Guthrie Theater, Dies.” New York Times, January 19, 2005.

FOLIO PN 2000 .M65
The Minnesota Theatre Company and the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre program collection, 1963–1970
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul
https://libguides.mnhs.org/guthrie/primary
Description: Theater programs from the Guthrie’s founding to 1970.

Guilfoyle, Peg. The Guthrie Theater: Images, History, and Inside Stories. Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2006.

Guthrie Theater.
https://www.guthrietheater.org/about-us/our-story/

PA003
Guthrie Theater records, 1957–present
Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
https://archives.lib.umn.edu/repositories/9/resources/6866
Description: Production materials, administrative records, marketing files, and production photos from the Guthrie Theater.

The Guthrie, a New Beginning. Commemorative limited ed. Minnesota: N.p., 2006.

Zolotov, Sam. “Director Leaves Guthrie Theater.” New York Times, May 6, 1966.

Related Images

Guthrie Theater, riverside view
Guthrie Theater, riverside view
Audience of the Guthrie Theater's first production
Audience of the Guthrie Theater's first production
“Summerfolk” in performance
“Summerfolk” in performance
“Summerfolk” in performance
“Summerfolk” in performance
Original Guthrie Theater
Original Guthrie Theater

Turning Point

In 2006, the Guthrie moves from its original location at Vineland Place to a new building near St. Anthony Falls and the Mississippi River. The new Guthrie has what the old space lacked: multiple stages, larger areas for scenery and costume construction, and more storage and office space.

Chronology

1959

Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea, and Peter Zeisler discuss the idea of establishing a professional regional theater in a city outside New York. They choose Minneapolis as the theater’s home that same year.

1960

The T. B Walker foundation donates land behind the Walker Art Center, where construction of the theater begins. Donations and fundraising obtain $2.2 million for the project.

1963

The Guthrie Theater opens in May with a production of Hamlet directed by Tyrone Guthrie himself. The Miser, Three Sisters, and Death of a Salesman are also on stage for the Guthrie’s first season.

1966

Tyrone Guthrie steps down as artistic director. He passed away five years later.

1968

The Guthrie has its first national tour with The House of Atreus and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It also begins to stage shows in smaller spaces, such the Crawford-Livingston Theater and The Other Place.

1970

During the rebuilding of the Walker Art Center, the Guthrie adds much-needed on-site space for rehearsals, set construction, and offices. This project, along with a season of low attendance, leads to financial struggles.

1971

Michael Langham becomes artistic director of the Guthrie. During his tenure, he revived the company with new stagings of famous classics and lengthened the theater’s seasons and touring programs.

1976

The Guthrie 2 is started near the University of Minnesota with funding from the Mellon Foundation. Meant to be a smaller space than the main stage that would host more contemporary plays, the program lasts for only three seasons.

1982

The Guthrie receives a Tony award for outstanding contribution to American theater.

1987

The Guthrie launches a Campaign for Artistic Excellence, raising over $25 million in five years.

1988

The Guthrie Lab (later known as the Lab Theater) opens in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District with a performance of Cymbeline. Companies such as Pangea World Theater, Jeune Lune, and Illusion Theater go on to perform there.

1997

“A Guthrie Experience for Actors in Training” program begins. This program focuses on helping young actors forge their careers in the theater world.

2000

Unable to expand at Vineland Place, the Guthrie looks to a new location. A fundraising campaign is launched to help the Guthrie move to a new building on the banks of the Mississippi.

2006

The company performs at the Vineland Place location for the last time, then stages a grand opening of its new theater at 818 South Second Street.

2008

Minnesota voters pass the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, helping to preserve art programs and theaters like the Guthrie.