Political Theater

The Guthrie's search for new digs casts the company in a Minneapolis development drama

You can't argue with the rent: The Guthrie Theater currently pays nothing to the Walker Art Center for the building that houses its 1,300-seat thrust stage. Yet this past July, the Guthrie and artistic director Joe Dowling announced intentions to build new stages and new facilities that could prompt a move from the site the company has occupied for 35 years.

The Guthrie's board will not even formally consider potential locations until January, but the first act of this production has already tossed the city's most venerated theater into the middle of several long-standing planning debates. And though the Guthrie may not have wished to raise the curtain yet on this political theater, the cast already includes some substantial players. The Guthrie's future artistic program has become entwined with competing visions of 21st-century Minneapolis, including: the expansion of a worldwide insurance conglomerate; the plans for a downtown entertainment core; and the efforts to provide adequate sports fields for the city's underserved kids.

And were that not sufficiently complicated, the Guthrie may also play a part in revising one of the city's oldest, and most intractable scripts: the decades-old physical and economic segregation between the poor and minority populations of North Minneapolis and the wealthy, amenity-stuffed southwest side.

Though Guthrie managing director David Hawkanson cautions that all plans are "very preliminary," the theater has nailed down a few specifics. In July the Guthrie sent subscribers an outline of a three-stage plan. The traditional 1,300-seat thrust stage, which juts like a peninsula into the audience, will, according to Dowling, "always remain a part of the Guthrie experience." Dowling also argued for "creat[ing] a second space within the Guthrie complex... a 500-600 seat theater dedicated to the presentation of 20th- (and 21st-) century work." Finally, Dowling forecast "a 150-seat studio theater where work of a more experimental nature can take place, where young actors can cut their creative teeth and where a continuing exploration with form can keep us alert to new ideas." (Dowling says that the studio theater is not a replacement for the irregularly scheduled Guthrie Lab in downtown Minneapolis's Itasca Building, although what future that space might have in the above scheme is difficult to determine.) In addition, the Guthrie hopes to greatly expand catering facilities and shop space.

Beyond that, Guthrie leaders say little, insisting that not much is known this early in their feasibility studies. For example, Hawkanson steadfastly refuses to project how much Dowling's vision will cost, especially before a site has been determined. "I'm not even comfortable putting out a range," he says. "There are so many issues. A parking solution behind the Guthrie could cost $25 to $30 million"--referring to the neighborhood's chronic parking crunch--"while a parking solution downtown might cost nothing because there is existing parking. We've been very careful not to put any numbers out."

But the actors on the Minneapolis political and theatrical scene abhor a vacuum. Figures as high as $100 million have been whispered around town. When Hawkanson hears this, it provokes a fit of definiteness: "I can't imagine it being that size a project," he declares.

One source close to the Guthrie says that a project in the $40 million to $60 million range "sounds reasonable."

How the Guthrie, which currently has an endowment of $42 million, might pay for their proposed new stages remains undisclosed, and the theater has yet to rule out the possibility of public financing. "It's certainly something we're exploring," says Hawkanson. "The viability of that is going to have a lot to do with where the site is."

In any case, early in the project, the Guthrie has already started spinning the prospects of public money: "This isn't like a baseball stadium," says Guthrie publicist Dennis Behl.

Though the Guthrie has expressed its ambition to remain in the Lowry Hill neighborhood, it seems unlikely the Vineland Place building could house another two theaters. And while Hawkanson says that no site "is off the table yet," four possibilities stand out.

The first involves the Walker and the large brown building that now houses the Allianz Insurance Co. (This is the edifice on Hennepin Avenue with the glowering stone buffalo in front.) Last Tuesday Allianz--a German conglomerate that is the fifth-largest insurance holding company in the world--made public what it had told its 500 employees three weeks earlier from the Guthrie stage: that the growing company will be leaving its space within the next several years.

Jim Vos, the company's real estate consultant, describes Allianz, the Walker, and the Guthrie as "three very large animals in a very small cage," noting that over time the Walker has made "more than one offer to purchase the building. It's all been very cooperative, very friendly, but the company has not been inclined to accept because they have never wanted to be anywhere else."

Now that the opportunity is there, could the Walker take over some Allianz space and perhaps expand its current building to accommodate the Guthrie's two new stages? Walker administrative director David Galligan says his institution "is not moving," but doesn't rule out much else. The Walker could expand into the Allianz space, although Galligan cautions that the Walker has no current plans to raise funds for such a project. The current Walker/Guthrie complex could be expanded to house additional facilities; however, parking remains a critical problem. Residents oppose expanding the Allianz surface lot into a ramp, and it's unclear whether the Allianz structure could be removed and replaced with parking.

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