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The Big House

Daniel Corrigan

In the hot, dead days of the theatrical dry season last summer, I stood inside the Loring Playhouse one Sunday evening, gaping through the theater lobby's windows with two strangers at a stunning storm front over Kenwood. We were there to see a reading of two short plays, including an adaptation of an exquisitely painful Joyce Carol Oates story; not surprisingly for low-budget theater, these two Canadian visitors and I were the only audience members. At intermission, the director served us soda and, in our newfound intimacy, we all fell into talking about theater. The well-dressed, fortysomething couple said that they were enjoying an annual summer jaunt to the Twin Cities, and had planned on making their usual visit to the Guthrie. But, as they explained in a soft-spoken, unassuming way, upon arriving they couldn't believe that the Guthrie was staging the lightweight comedy You Can't Take It With You. If they wanted that kind of theater, they didn't have to drive all the way to Minneapolis to find it.

That was the first time it occurred to me that something odd might be happening at the Guthrie--the theater that, for most of its 35-year history, has been regarded as the flagship of the American regional-theater movement. When the next show many of us saw was Blithe Spirit, some audience members were disappointed, particularly "the hard-core Guthrie audience," as Joe Dowling, the Guthrie's Irish artistic director, calls them. "The juxtaposition of those two shows was a mistake, absolutely," Dowling said recently. "I've admitted that and I'm certainly trying to work around that, so that we don't put all the populist plays in one basket.

"You have to build a winner into every season, but not underestimate this community," he added, with the assurance of one who's learned the hard way.

"Populist" is an oft-spoken term for Dowling, and a favored quality in both his play choices and his directorial style. So far, though, the semantic distinction between "populist" and "commercial" remains unclear. To date, Dowling's formula for concocting seasons has been a thick base of comedy and comedic drama sprinkled with a couple weightier works. In his first season, Dowling presented two comedies (She Stoops to Conquer and A Midsummer Night's Dream); two versatile dramas (Philadelphia, Here I Come! and The Cherry Orchard); two heavy dramas (The Price, A Doll's House); and, of course, A Christmas Carol. With the exception of The Cherry Orchard, Dowling's plays were all works he had directed elsewhere; his Midsummer Night's Dream bore an uncanny resemblance to a production of the play he had mounted at Stratford in Ontario in 1993.

The current season has been even more comedy-focused (and just as familiar to the director), with only one serious drama, Racing Demon. And even the more substantial comedies, such as Playboy of the Western World, have been delivered with Dowling's signature super-light touch. The new aesthetic has not gone unnoticed by either audiences or critics. Writing in the Star Tribune in August, 1996, John Habich noted: "Dowling virtually ignored the darker sides of Chekhov's family drama and treated it as a comedy, as its author long ago recommended. She Stoops spilled across the stage in a surfeit of laughter and good spirit. Only in Philadelphia does a sense of sadness and loss linger, and even in this play, the pain is leavened by humor and a sense of humanity's unending ridiculousness." Rather pointedly, Habich added, "Dowling has not attempted to update the plays nor has he subjected them to esoteric artistic concepts, an approach sometimes favored by Dowling's predecessor, Garland Wright, and the directors Wright invited to the Guthrie." At last, people seemed to be thinking, after the abstract, moody Art of Wright and his predecessor, Liviu Ciulei, theater we all could understand, theater served with a smile!

On Monday, Dowling announced plans for his third season, which will begin in July and end in May. Dowling will not stray far from the formula, opening with The Importance of Being Earnest and Turgenev's A Month in the Country, in an adaptation by Brian Friel which, the Guthrie assures us, is "filled with humor and warmth." A 1748 Italian farce, The Venetian Twins, will be adapted by Kevin Kling to take place in modern-day Minnesota, followed by A Christmas Carol. This time, Dowling is saving his heavier fare for winter and spring: The Magic Fire, an autobiographical piece by Lillian Garrett-Groag about growing up in Argentina under Peron; a Julius Caesar set in the 20th century (which Dowling did five years ago at Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre); and Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke.

The Magic Fire is an interesting choice, to be sure (as is the prominent theme of midlife female sexual frustration in Summer and Smoke and A Month In the Country). Yet above the fanfare that has trumpeted Dowling's revivification of a venerable theatrical institution and will no doubt accompany this new season, a troubling set of questions has come into focus. The theater faces momentous challenges--feeding the maw of the box office, surviving a national funding squeeze, and beating off new competition from touring blockbusters--and the shifting identity of the Guthrie may be edging toward a kind of definitional paradox: How many compromises can the Guthrie make to preserve its mission without compromising the mission itself?

 

The Twin Cities have for the past 30 or 40 years had very little opportunity to see any professional theater, other than occasional visits by touring companies and the performances... at the Old Log. In both cases, the plays presented have been chosen primarily for their commercial appeal.... We believe that there exists a considerable public which is gravely dissatisfied with the condescension to "popular" taste made by the commercial theater, movies, and television; a public which is prepared to meet considerable demands upon its intelligence and energy. --Sir Tyrone Guthrie, 1965

Disgust with the commercial machine of Broadway and its inferior product led Tyrone Guthrie--an Irishman, and one of the most important stage directors of his day--to found his namesake theater in 1963. Then, as now, overnight success was an absolute requirement on Broadway; serious drama struggled for a foothold, while comedies and big-budget musicals predominated, leaving few options for those artists who wanted to grapple intelligently with the classics or with difficult topics and adventuresome staging. The Twin Cities were a symbolically significant choice for his brave new concept of high-minded regional theater: This was far from Broadway, out in the "heartland." (A catchier euphemism for "the middle of nowhere" was never coined.) Even more, Minnesota had a solid base of corporate donors and an educated populace that longed to be regarded as culturally savvy.

From the start, the Guthrie was as much a civic institution as an artistic one; it was to be not only a place to see good theater but also a point of pride for Minnesota on the national scene. In 1960 a steering committee of local civic and business leaders was formed, including John Cowles, Jr. (then-owner of the Minneapolis Tribune) and Frank Whiting (then-chair of the university drama department). An intensive statewide push for construction dollars ensued.

Finally, on an oppressively hot summer night in 1963, with the eyes of the theater world trained on Minneapolis, Guthrie's modern-dress Hamlet opened the theater. As it turns out, Guthrie's perception of the state of local theater wasn't entirely accurate; one theater regular who attended opening night recalls with some impatience, "You know, I had already seen two Hamlets that year." Still, the Guthrie's opening is generally considered the big bang of American nonprofit resident theater. In this idealistic realm, the vision went, audiences would attend different classical plays on alternating nights in the same theater (as they do in the fall at the Guthrie today), and actors would belong to permanent companies, honing their craft in an intensive family atmosphere and revisiting roles from time to time (as almost nobody does today, including actors at the Guthrie).

And just as Guthrie could underestimate the range of theater already extant in his adopted home, Sir Tyrone's faith in the people was a partial one at best. "[A theater's] policy must not be planned with the general mass of the public in mind," he wrote in 1965. "The general mass has shown clearly for hundreds of years that it has not the slightest use for serious theater.... Most of us are lazy all the time and by middle age are quite incapable of serious effort of any kind, physical or mental.... Therefore, do you agree, if a serious theater is realistically managed, it will not waste time and money trying to woo the great mass of the public?"

Guthrie's candor about his elitism may be charming, but his words beg an obvious question: If he truly doubted the attention span of the masses, why, then, did he build such a big theater? Guthrie managing director David Hawkanson sums up the problem neatly: "When you're successful, it's a great auditorium. When you're not, it's a nightmare." At its current size of 1,300 seats, somewhat smaller than its original capacity, the Guthrie is still the nation's largest regional rep. (For a sense of scale, Disney, one of the most profitable commercial players on Broadway today, houses 1,800 in its New Amsterdam theater on 42nd Street, home to The Lion King.) Every Guthrie artistic director has been faced with the same monstrous task, an endless wrestling match with the impossible: to fill this auditorium with live bodies, season after season, using a menu of so-called "classical" plays at a time when, Dowling asserts, most American acting schools have all but abandoned teaching classical techniques.

 

Dowling himself admits the improbability, even the anachronism, of the Guthrie's scale as a nonprofit theater: "I think if you were building a theater today, you would not put the same number of seats into it." But don't let his reticent tone fool you. Both Dowling and Hawkanson, his handpicked right-hand man, have pledged to bring new blood into the theater or spill their own trying. Hawkanson, previously the managing director of the Hartford Stage Company, has garnered a national reputation for digging regional theaters out of financial sinkholes and rewriting their ledger books in black ink. And Dowling says he finds the war for audiences "enormously invigorating and challenging and not frustrating at all." His tastes and temperament are attuned to just this sort of challenge. "I know creative artists aren't supposed to say that, they're supposed to say, 'I'd like to do plays where nobody came, I want to be truthful to something where it doesn't matter if there's an audience.' I like audiences, and I like big audiences."

There is nothing in the theater world which the Great Public values so highly as Success. If word gets around that such-and-such is A Great Success, people will crawl on their hands and knees over broken glass to buy tickets. They will not bother to ask what the play is about.... What they want is to associate themselves with something which is largely and loudly successful... which has Made The Grade, has Got Ahead, about which Everyone Is Talking."

--Sir Tyrone Guthrie, 1965

The circular logic of success hypothesized by Tyrone Guthrie--only popularity begets popularity--functions as a double-edged sword, and Guthrie artistic directors have historically suffered for it: Most have eventually fallen out of favor with the public and/or critics, and almost every new artistic director has been brought in under some campaign to reignite public interest. In this sense, Dowling is no different from his predecessors. But Dowling has distinguished himself from the rest through, among other things, relentlessly fighting for audiences. For Dowling, "70 percent capacity"--the amount required of every show for the Guthrie to stay in the black--is a guiding principle, practically a mantra. But even that number fails to convey the force of his ambition. As one former Guthrie insider notes, Dowling and Hawkanson are "animals" when it comes to box office: Seventy percent is not good enough, not by a long shot. Eighty percent isn't even enough. For A Christmas Carol, the Guthrie's cash cow, 90 percent won't do. One hundred percent is more like it; last season's finale, A Midsummer Night's Dream, actually exceeded that mark, making it the highest-selling show in the theater's history.

Dowling's sense of urgency has a context: When he took over, he inherited a $1 million-plus debt from Garland Wright's finale flop, the musical Babes In Arms--which Wright had hoped to sell to Broadway. He also stepped into a serious PR mess: The public had turned off to Wright and spurned the Guthrie, and the theater was hemorrhaging subscribers. Says longtime Guthrie board member Jack Hoeschler, "At a time when the theater market was actually growing, the Guthrie was going down faster than you'd expect it to be. If your business is losing market share, that is a cause of concern."

"When Garland started, subscriptions were at 13,500, and three years later they were at 26,400, the largest in the theater's history,"says Lendre Kearns, former communications director under Wright and, for one year, Dowling. "In 1993 the public got into a bad mood, and Garland got into a bad mood, and their bad moods weren't the same. The public felt they were being preached to."

Such an aesthetic parting couldn't have come at a worse time for the theater, even though Wright had helped to build a safety net by establishing a massive endowment of $25 million, the largest in the country (it currently stands at about $40 million). "Right when the endowment was realized, the NEA went away, and there was a shift in funding priorities," Kearns says. According to Guthrie development director Dianne Brennan, NEA funding now averages between $100,000 and $125,000 a year, down from a peak of $500,000. Meanwhile, corporate and philanthropic funding has also changed as donors now earmark their money for specific uses. Says Brennan, "Corporations have decided they want to narrow the guidelines, so that they're saying, 'We're giving to arts education, or to access programs, etc....' What that doesn't allow us to do is to move those dollars where they're needed." Says Kearns, "Excellence used to be the fundamental criteria for funding. Now, you're being judged by accessibility. Excellence doesn't necessarily get your grants." In other words, the very funding that is supposed to liberate arts organizations from a dependence on constant commercial success now functions as another cog in the relentless Success Cycle. But as compromised as those funds are, they still only constitute a fraction of the Guthrie's total budget. That's why ticket sales, especially season-ticket subscriptions, are so important, and why the Guthrie slapped itself on the back so noisily after the numbers came back at the end of last season. Dowling and Hawkanson, it seems, had nearly erased Wright's debt, and raised mainstage attendance by about 19 percent and subscriptions from about 16,000 to about 18,000 (and to almost 22,000 this season).

 

"When Joe came on, our task was to re-engage the core audience, to bring people back to the fold," says Kearns. "It was a marketing exercise. The focus under Garland was on long-range audience development. That's much less a priority now. This is a strongly retail-oriented approach. That's the nature of the climate." One notable example of this retail approach has been the Guthrie's focus groups, which quizzed formerly faithful Guthrie-goers on why they stopped buying tickets. This fixation on attendance is one hallmark of the new Guthrie. And, at the core, it is a new Guthrie: Even the theater's prized mission statement, at one time its very soul, has been rendered nearly obsolete. According to that statement, the number-one goal of the Guthrie is "To cultivate the finest acting ensemble in America" to perform "classic" plays. Dowling was apparently hired in part because of a proclaimed commitment to a permanent acting company; since his arrival, and his frequent casting calls to New York, Washington, D.C., and Ireland, that company has been effectively dissolved. And the concept of "classics," always rather vague (even under Guthrie), continues to lose clear definition. "There's no question that Joe has changed [the mission statement], and the board was part and parcel of that," says Hoeschler.

"Joe has expanded the definition of the classics. For a while the board was struggling with the question, do we only do classics? We've gotten over that hump. We'll do anything no matter how young it is."

Before taking the helm of Dublin's acclaimed Abbey Theatre at the tender age of 29, Dowling had climbed through its ranks of actors. And, though Dowling no longer treads the stage, performance is no less his job now than it was then. Thirty-five years after the state's booster class built itself a palace, Dowling tops the throne--and that seat brings with it the public obligations of a figurehead and the practical responsibilities of a prime minister. People who live like this, and whose work involves management--politicians, CEOs, artistic directors--are shapeshifters. That is not to say they are phonies, but that the truly brilliant ones, including Dowling, seem to possess magic most people can only wonder at: They are seen in three places at once, and are capable of being at least three or four different people, wholly and truly, bringing the sum of their force to each role--disciplinarian, friend, PR flak, creative visionary.

"There is a real feeling that people want to identify with a single individual," Dowling told an interviewer last year, "and whoever is in charge of the theater becomes that individual. Whether it's good or bad." Understanding this, Dowling and the Guthrie board have made the most of the phenomenon, presenting Dowling's image everywhere from the theater lobby to a billboard on I-394. "Invite him to a party and he'll come," says Hoeschler. "He's not hidden behind director-as-artist, and that's frankly important in this town." The message all this presents has been clear: The Guthrie is not just the Guthrie anymore; the Guthrie is Joe Dowling, and he wants to shake your hand.

Though Dowling's interactions with the media are note-perfect--a seamless fusion of alarming candor and the party line--the 24-hour cult of personality can take a toll. "I feel like I'm running for office all the time," Dowling told an interviewer for the Irish Times last year. "What they call the rubber-chicken circuit, though of course it's the smorgasbord circuit here, because it's Swedish." This is most apparent one February morning when Dowling is running late for yet another appearance, this one at North High School. As Dowling stands in his windowless office, backlit by the glow of an idle computer, the weight of the director's workload suddenly descends. One can almost see it settle in behind his eyes like some chronic headache making an encore appearance. Dowling looks tired, and not the kind of tired you get from having to wake up earlier than usual to meet a journalist. This is the kind of tired that builds up over the course of years, when work is not just work, but an identity that inhabits a body and steals its name. Labor has etched a signature of ownership across his forehead, and scribbled in around the eyes.

 

"I have to say, I get to a point sometimes when I want to scream," Dowling says, "when I want to literally hide my head under covers. I am essentially a very shy person--I know that sounds ridiculous. It's the hardest thing in the world. But there's part of me that goes, 'I have to do it. Fuck it.' And I do it."

That willingness to do what might unkindly be called the dirty work of artistic directing might be the most important shibboleth between Dowling and his immediate predecessors, Wright and the Romanian Ciulei (1980-85). While both were acclaimed throughout the theater world for their artistry, neither proved as gifted at public relations.

On the other hand, though both Wright and Ciulei faced extreme financial pressures and box-office slumps, neither made a beeline toward the audience's comfort zone. (In a telling confluence of events, in 1982 the Guthrie received a Tony for outstanding contributions to American theater; in fiscal year 1983, the theater would rack up $630,000 in debt and, as a result, begin to lay the groundwork for building an endowment.)

"Liviu brought a new aesthetic and challenged the way people thought about theater," explains Sheila Livingston, education coordinator and a veteran volunteer who has been involved with the Guthrie since its planning stages. "He didn't think in terms [of box office]; he thought completely of theater as a place to do art.... He felt very strongly that we needed an experimental stage, and that was one of his chief frustrations. He began to realize you couldn't really do that kind of experimental work on the mainstage."

After Ciulei left the Guthrie, Wright addressed the problem by opening the Guthrie Lab space (and finally realizing the endowment). But audiences, as ever, are attracted to the mystique of Vineland Place, and in recent years attendance at the Lab has languished around 40 percent. Accordingly, the 1997-98 Lab season has featured a single homegrown production, Black No More (opening Friday). And there is now talk of another second space, this one on the Guthrie premises.

Dowling is candid about the need. "One of the frustrations I have is that most of my life has been spent working with new writers," he says. "And I'm finding it frustrating that I don't have that side of me in operation. But it's something that's hard to do in a 1,300-seat space. We need some place where, if you've got to do the big, broad programming [on the mainstage], the Midsummer Night's Dreams and the Much Ados, you can do more contemporary, more interesting work."

And that is the closest Dowling will ever come to suggesting that the shows on the Guthrie mainstage aren't as interesting as they could be.

When people like Hoeschler and Kearns talk about "accessibility," "market share," and "retail," what they're really talking about is people: people who have a finite amount of time and money to spend on entertainment; people who might just as well go to a Twins game as to the theater; people who, most likely, are going to go to a movie or to Riverdance. If, as Hoeschler indicates, the Guthrie wants not only to maintain its core audience but to actually cut in on other entertainment outlets' piece of the pie--or boost its market share, if you will--the theater must reach these people.

Says Hoeschler, "In the theater world, you've got a major conglomeration of Jujamcyn-Pace [the Broadway theater owners and producers with a local foothold at the State and Orpheum Theatres], and Disney; that's very big, much greater than changes in government funding that affect 1 percent of your total budget. But it's a competition that's been healthy. These guys have shown that the theater of old needs to be competing more aggressively with entertainment--needs to be more entertaining. The Guthrie is perfectly capable of competing in that market."

Words like "entertaining" are vague, coded terms these days that don't exactly mean what they should. After all, wouldn't any Guthrie booster claim that every Guthrie show is entertaining? What the term really means is any combination of the following qualities:

1. Loud
2. Expensively produced, with fancy sets and costumes
3. Musical
4. Comic
5. Broadway-born or -bound

Think The Lion King, think Sunset Blvd., think Rent. That's entertainment in 1998. Indeed, like some long-lost stepfather, the very system Tyrone Guthrie sought to combat has come back to haunt his theater 35 years later; and this time, it's wearing Mickey Mouse ears, and carrying our own City Hall in its back pocket. As Hawkanson notes, the Guthrie has lost many subscribers to Broadway, and while the theater shares "significant [audience] overlap" with the touring spectacles, many of those defectors have yet to return to the Guthrie fold. And the new Guthrie seems to have determined to imitate such economies of scale without adopting them whole cloth.

 

None of this is to imply that the Guthrie is going to be mounting Cats any time soon; Dowling may be a populist but he's no whore, and he admits there are limits to what he'll do. (Neil Simon, for instance, is off-limits.) The future of the Guthrie might be found in a hybrid production like Dowling's A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was just a sequin shy of becoming a full-blown musical, and not a few people missed out on Shakespeare's language amid the rumble of synthesizers and special effects.

Neither Dowling nor Hawkanson professes an antipathy toward the new competition, and, in fact, the relationship between the Guthrie and Jujamcyn may soon feature as much cooperation as competition--though whether either is truly healthy remains to be seen. "We've done a lot of co-promotions," Hawkanson says of his neighbors on Hennepin Avenue. "We share mailing lists and marketing information." Actually, they share more than that: Mike Brand, head of Jujamcyn Productions, which presented the world premiere of The Lion King, recently joined the Guthrie's board. Jim Binger, Jujamcyn's founder and the CEO of Jujamcyn Theaters (which owns and operates five Broadway theaters, among others), is a lifetime Guthrie board member.

Today, the civic culture that once took so much pride in supporting its nonprofit institutions can now realize a far greater return, at least in terms of dollars, on openly entrepreneurial entertainment. Many of the same subcelebrities and jolly burghers who have bankrolled the Guthrie for years can now be found on opening nights at the curiously titled "Twin Cities Broadway Theatre Season."

"What do you say?" Hoeschler asks with an ambivalence that suggests an acceptance of the inevitable. "The NEA is just another one of your funders that died. The question is, is the Guthrie able to compete with these big, corporate productions that the city is subsidizing very aggressively? The answer is, with someone like Joe, he's gonna do it. Should he do more Chekhov? Maybe yes, maybe no.

"You or I might feel it's too bad the market is being driven by musicals and big production numbers and that stuff. But the fact of life is that the American theatergoing public is not as highbrow as it used to be." One former Guthrie insider encapsulates Dowling's compromises with fewer rationalizations. "Joe's artwork isn't interesting to me. There's no question that when Garland failed, he failed big. I've also had some of my most incredible artistic experiences [with Garland] with the most obscure plays nobody had ever seen. With Joe, there aren't as high highs, but not as low lows either." And though his energy seems indefatigable and his enthusiasm boundless, Dowling can slip into a quiet kind of introspection.

"Sometimes I feel we're a kind of dinosaur, really--big theaters in particular," he says. "None of my children are interested in theater, and if they were going out for an evening, neither of them would choose the theater as their first choice. That depresses me sometimes because this is something that I've given my life to, and I haven't passed that on. Their generation does not think of theater first at all. Now if they come, they're bused in by schools. The number of people who've come through these doors in the last 35 years is enormous. How many of them come back?"

And then, as subtly as it appeared, Dowling's reflective mood passes. He's got no time to be tired today; he's got to go. A glance at the clock, a gracious goodbye and many thanks. He throws on a coat. He's gone.


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