by Dean J. Seal   July 4, 2004

Dean Seal writes here about the Guthrie's new play-commissioning initiative. Ambitious plans are afoot.
When the Guthrie was launched so many moons ago, it had the effect that Sir Tyrone wanted it to have; to show that a regional center like Minneapolis could produce and sustain world-class theater. If it can happen in Bristol, why not in Seattle or the Twin Cities?

The regional scene has blossomed, and with it the touring of national shows out of Broadway. Plus, with shows like The Lion King doing their tune-up runs in Minneapolis before they go to Broadway, it’s formally recognized in the business as a national market equal to any.

Two things have ramped up the effort at the Big G in the last few years. First, Joe Dowling made a commitment to expand the range of the Guthrie’s mission. Initially founded to expound the classics, Dowling said, why not engage the classics of living writers, like Arthur Miller? And why not engage the classics of tomorrow? In fact, why not commission them? Second, he turned the Guthrie Lab into a real lab, and the results have been very satisfying. People like Lee Blessing, Jeffrey Hatcher, and Walter Mee have had productions that were critically acclaimed and well-attended.

So if they are that ambitious in their current environment, what is going to happen when they are all lit up and moved in to their new digs, when they have their own thrust, their own proscenium, a third stage/ black box, and a seasoned touring company to show off on the road?

The Literary Department, headed by Michael Dixon (a very busy man), set out a program to be ready to move when the time came. Its ambition is to crank up the national presence of the Guthrie another notch by becoming a force in playwriting.

They describe it this way in their three-year plan:

--Bring new works into the main programming of the Guthrie, including the Thrust and Proscenium seasons, the tour (and eventually the Third Theatre/Black Box)
--Encourage and support the creation of new work through commissioning, development and partnering efforts
--Engage with playwrights at various points along the continuum of their careers through a variety of artistic and educational ventures
--Bolster the Guthrie’s position as a national center for theater arts by launching new work from the Theater into the contemporary American repertoire through tours, publications and future productions of plays that premiere at the Guthrie.”

This is a very ambitious undertaking, and if executed properly, will make the New Guthrie a national center of theater second to none, and one to rival the great theater centers of the world.

Some of Dowling’s initiatives can now be seen as a precursor to this stage of development. He revived a moribund touring company and keeps them on the road in small towns and schools, with an ever widening circle of performing locations. He hooked up with the University of Minnesota to produce a BFA program for stage acting, so that he would have a talent pool in the future, and actors could have a chance to train in the classical style and not starve to death, or be forced into bad television, but instead have some Guthrie gold-dust on their resume and maybe even some gigs at The Big House itself.

But they aren’t just hanging out the shingle and waiting for someone to call. Like the cosponsorship with the U of M, the Guthrie is forming alliances with development institutions locally and nationally. Examples include: the National New Play Network; The Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis, where Dixon is a Board member; Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for Science and Technology, NYC; Children’s Theatre Company, Minneapolis, which has been prolific in quality productions under Peter Brosius; and Commonweal Theatre Company, Lanesboro, MN, the daring little rural success story that could be a model for small towns the way the Guthrie was for regional centers. The Bush Foundation is picking up the tab for a lot of this and hats off to them for doing it.

Now that they are launching into the playwriting itself, they take a Great Leap Forward in installing a Guthrie Vision of what a national theater can be like. There isn’t going to be a National Theater per se, as long as redneck legislators locally and nationally are against the public funding of anything but the highway system; so Dowling and Company are just doing it. They are building a national theater, with classical European roots and disciplines, in the dead center of the continent, and exporting their vision in all directions. The idea is nothing less than brand extension, to take what makes the Guthrie a kingpin of quality work and ship it nationwide in new plays, superbly trained talent, and road shows that demonstrate the new standard. I predict that this achieves its fullness in parking a few plays on Broadway in our lifetime.

There are naysayers who opine that Dowling and Company are trying to bury the legacy of Tony Guthrie, by moving the building, by engaging the living playwright instead of sticking to the dead white men of the Old Europe. Pish and tosh, I say (I disagree). It was Guthrie who identified the riverfront as the city’s overlooked asset, and the new Guthrie becomes the jewel that draws everyone's eyes to the exquisite setting of the Mississippi. When Dowling made the connection with Arthur Miller, no one could dispute that his plays should be in the classical repertoire of the Guthrie. Dowling has kept his ducks in a row from day one, taking Guthrie’s mission and running hard with it, straight up the middle. And all of it combines to create a living theater that is alive in its own times. It’s not a museum of ancient history.

This effort could make the Guthrie on the River a destination for the cream of national and international talent, more so than ever before. We will be at the vortex of a new wave of quality in our bedraggled, Fox-soaked wasteland of a nation. The Guthrie will be a powerful engine of cultural change, more than ever before.

I can’t wait for the new place to open.