Curtains for the Guthrie building? Group fights demolition

Michael Krieger

Sir Tyrone Guthrie was never particularly fond of Broadway, so when the successful stage director crossed the Atlantic Ocean to establish a regional theater movement, he found Minneapolis to be an inviting place for a repertory theater.

Now, after a 39-year run, plans are underway to build a new Guthrie Theater along the Mississippi River and destroy the one Guthrie founded.

When a new Guthrie is completed, its predecessor will be an empty stage not viable for performances, its owners said. But others argue the current Guthrie is a pre-eminent Minneapolis landmark worthy of preservation.

“We feel it’s the most internationally recognized icon in the Twin Cities,” said Paul Metsa, founding director of, a group trying to prevent the theater’s destruction.

“It’s extremely important both culturally and historically,” Metsa said.

Metsa’s group, which operates independently of the theater company, has been gathering support to preserve the building. Members said they believe the theater could serve as a future community resource.

Preservation, Metsa said, “would be in the best interests of both the Guthrie and the Walker.”

The Walker Art Center owns the current Guthrie Theater, and officials there said they plan to raze the Guthrie to accommodate an expansion of their facilities.

The Minneapolis City Council approved the expansion last year, and the Walker “relied upon the council action in order to go forward,” said Walker attorney John Herman.

But whether this action authorized the Guthrie’s demolition is disputed.

“The legal argument would be, we think we got approval last year for the entire project,” which included razing the current theater, Herman said.

Tom Goodman, attorney for, said the council’s previous decision on the Guthrie has expired and the Walker will need to approach the council again before demolition.

Ward 2 City Council member Paul Zerby said he hopes the Walker will re-examine its demolition plans.

“The Walker certainly can step up to the plate and exercise responsible civic leadership of the kind it has for decades, and say, ‘All right, we’re willing to take another look at this,'” Zerby said.

Parting is such
sweet sorrow

The Guthrie Theater opened at its present location in 1963, with a performance of “Hamlet” directed by the founder himself.

“It was his vision to bring theater out of the New York setting,” said Barbara Averill, media relations manager at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Guthrie, whom Queen Elizabeth II knighted in 1961, came to the Twin Cities after more than three decades of directing abroad. A classicist, he was averse to long-running Broadway productions and advocated regional acting companies that could perform multiple plays during a theater season.

“It was a real experiment in the way theater was conducted,” Averill said.

The Guthrie Theater’s architecture was also experimental. Guthrie believed the “picture-frame” style of more traditional stages were stifling and not favorable for Shakespearean works.

Guthrie wrote in his 1959 autobiography that actors should be arranged on stage “in the sort of relation both to one another and to the audience, which the Elizabethan stage demanded and the picture-frame stage forbids.”

Architect Ralph Rapson later brought Guthrie’s vision into form. Rapson, a former 30-year dean of the University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, said he designed the theater with a “thrust” stage and asymmetrical seating, which “was the first and only time that this has been done.”

A thrust stage juts out into the surrounding seats, much in the same manner as stages during the Elizabethan period.

“The audience becomes very much part of the play,” Rapson said.

Rapson called the theater’s potential destruction “an enormous loss to the community.

“It’s a remarkably unique and historic building,” he said.

To be or not to be

Scheduled to open in 2005, the new Guthrie Theater will stand along the Mississippi River’s west bank, on a developing stretch of land facing St. Anthony Falls.

Guthrie officials said the new theater will preserve its original design.

“We’ve quite simply outgrown our current facility,” said communications director James Morrison.

But the Guthrie’s opening has been delayed at least six months, Morrison said, because Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed the theater’s $24 million funding request earlier this year.

Ventura’s spokesman Paul Moore said the governor declined the request because “if you help one group like that, you have to help them all.

“It’s not fair to just select certain ones,” Moore said.

Morrison said the theater will approach the state Legislature again next year for funding.

“The Guthrie Theatre is not in danger of disappearing off the map,” Morrison said.

Guthrie himself seems to have concurred. In the concluding pages of his autobiography, the director provided a hopeful outlook on the future of live theater.

“The struggle for survival may often batter the old theatre about severely,” Guthrie wrote. “Indeed, from time to time it will hardly be recognizable; but it will survive.”


Michael Krieger welcomes comments at [email protected]