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MSP's Theater Community Then and Now: From the Old Log to the Legacy Amendment

The original Guthrie Theater

Peg Guilfoyle

Tyrone Guthrie as the original Guthrie Theater was being built

Teresa Eyring

The Playwright's Center

Jack Reuler

Aditi Kapil

This article is the first in a two-part series about the people, organizations, places and philanthropy that have created and supported the second-largest theater city after New York: Minneapolis-St. Paul. The series is excerpted from Offstage Voices: Life in Twin Cities Theater by Peg Guilfoyle, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

MSP’s theater community today—which is large, mobile and inventive—springs from a long line of theater people, of all types, stretching back decades and longer. Theater is brutally brief, existing only in memory once the curtain falls, but it is constructed of individual efforts and, over time, it is the individuals who build the future as they themselves recede into the past. People have come before, they have worked just as hard, they have had their triumphs and tragedies, and in historical terms, we are building new rooms in a house they constructed.
MSP’s theater beginnings: “a long and abundant history”
Frank M. Whiting, the “Doc” Whiting who wrote the first invitation letter to Tyrone Guthrie about founding a theater in Minneapolis, wrote a fascinating book in 1988 called Minnesota Theatre: From Old Fort Snelling to the Guthrie. In it, Whiting traces a complex development web that, he says, started in 1821 with bored soldiers at Fort Snelling making their own entertainment by acting out melodramas of the time. Traveling road companies, stock companies and eventually resident companies found a home in the Twin Cities, even if for just a few shows or a few seasons. In 1883, two separate Grand Opera Houses were being constructed, one in each city. In 1897, the Drama Club at the University of Minnesota attempted the classics with 18th-century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Ethnic theaters, Whiting says, formed a continuous thread of connection in their own communities: He writes about a strong Yiddish theater, Scandinavian performers and an amateur German-language theater system, which he describes as having a “long and abundant history.” By 1930, Minnesota was home to the oldest and most successful stock company in the nation. When that company disbanded three years later, its owner and manager was elected mayor of Minneapolis. He served just one term in office; apparently he had a “sunny disposition” but no municipal experience.
Road companies visited throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and strong local companies such as Don Stolz’s Old Log Theatre (founded in 1940) and Dudley Riggs’s Brave New Workshop (1958) kept the dramatic flame alive. Both of these professional companies are still performing, as is the Theatre in the Round Players, a community theater that began in 1953 and is now located on the West Bank of Minneapolis.
At the University of Minnesota, the University Theatre presented both on campus and off, working in cooperation with the Minneapolis Symphony and with the university’s language departments for productions of French, German and Spanish plays in their original languages. Leadership of the American Educational Theatre Association was concentrated on the university campus in the mid-fifties. In 1958, an energetic group of professors formed an alliance with the Minnesota Centennial Commission to celebrate the state’s milestone birthday. The medium they chose: a refurbished riverboat, on which theater students would perform melodramas while floating on the Mississippi River. The descendant of that university showboat still operates today.
About the same time, University of Minnesota professor Arthur Ballet, a spellbinding lecturer, began teaching a class called Introduction to the Theater. It became legendary for its popularity and enrollment, reportedly limited only by the size of the largest available hall in which it could be held. For at least 17 years, the numbers grew to as many as 2,700 students per year by the 1970s. Ballet’s passion for the theater fostered enthusiasm in his students and served to train a younger generation of the Twin Cities. As retired professor C. Lance Brockman recalls, “What was apparent to me was that the Guthrie, the Children’s Theatre Company, Penumbra, they all put the profound interest in theater in this community to the fact that Arthur Ballet was committed to creating audiences.”
By 1963, the Twin Cities had a fine-art museum, a well-respected symphony and good competing newspapers. Professional sports had arrived in 1961 with both the Minnesota Twins baseball team and a professional football expansion team, the Vikings. All of these amenities were touted as solid civic indicators during the sales pitch that brought the Guthrie Theater to Minneapolis in 1963. The Guthrie’s arrival changed everything.
“Planting an oak tree”
Tyrone Guthrie, probably the best-known English-speaking theater director in the world at the time, had begun to tire of the vagaries and constrictions of New York and Broadway by the mid-1950s. In 1953, in Ontario, Canada, Guthrie and his colleagues had opened the Stratford Festival, with its remarkable thrust-shaped stage and an aesthetic that included contemporary interpretations of the great works of the classical theater canon.
His work in North America led Guthrie and several colleagues to dream of a classical repertory company that would be founded far from the constraints of the commercial theater scene in New York City. On September 30, 1959, through a nationally published theater column in The New York Times, Guthrie invited interested cities to contact him. In Minnesota, Whiting, then the head of the theater department at the University of Minnesota, wrote a letter inviting Guthrie and his colleagues to consider Minneapolis. A committee of civic leaders, many of them young and influential, went to work to attract the famous director to the city, touting its advantages, competing with delegations from Milwaukee, Detroit and other cities. The committee even flew to New York for a day, unheard of at the time, for a lunch meeting at the Century Club.
The committee prevailed. In 1963, the brand-new Guthrie Theater opened with a production of Hamlet in a contemporary setting, complete with tuxedos and flashlights. The founding was famously described, then and now, as “planting an oak tree.” Guthrie and his Twin Cities collaborators brought superb actors, the rigor of a rolling repertory system and a sparkling new theater building designed by architect Ralph Rapson to Minneapolis. The Twin Cities and the local theater profession would never be the same.
In the first few years, the Guthrie operated as a summer festival, following its Hamlet with remarkable productions of The Cherry Orchard, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The House of Atreus. The season became a little longer, and then longer again, still opening in June but running into the fall. There were perilous times—even the oak tree was not immune to the theatrical imperative of filling seats and staying solvent—but Minnesota had adopted the idea of its own classical theater and made it a signature part of its civic identity.
Working teams form around projects, and sometimes continue to work together thereafter. Communities form around theaters as much as theaters form around communities. Tyrone Guthrie came, he brought colleagues, and over successive seasons he attracted others to the company. Those colleagues became members of the community, living in neighborhoods, shopping in grocery stores, walking around lakes. Among the most famous were the wizardly designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch and leading actors of the day, such as George Grizzard, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy. For decades, some would return to do an occasional show—actors Ken Ruta, Peter Michael Goetz and Helen Carey—and some would make their permanent homes here—costume shop cofounder Annette Garceau and actor James Lawless.
Communities feed each other; like attracts like. In the rich crosspollination that was happening in Twin Cities theater, growth was rapid. Looking back, actor Bradley Greenwald reflects, “We were very lucky that we didn’t end up with the Guthrie and maybe [a] half dozen other Guthrie wannabes, theaters who were doing the same aesthetic on a smaller scale. What happened was you got all these different troupes and companies and theaters popping up, creating with their own discipline and their own aesthetic.”
A complex web of effort and ambition
The Moppet Players, predecessor to the Children’s Theatre Company, moved into the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1965. Chanhassen Dinner Theatres were founded in 1968. The Cricket Theatre opened in 1968 and ran for 26 years. Park Square Theatre in St. Paul presented its first season in 1972; In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in 1973; the Illusion Theater in 1974; Mixed Blood Theatre in 1976; Penumbra Theatre in 1977; Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the History Theatre, both in 1978; Red Eye Collaboration in 1983; and the Jungle Theater in 1991.
Even the theaters that are no longer active—among them the Palace Theatre, At the Foot of the Mountain, Actors Theatre of St. Paul, Cricket Theatre, Eye of the Storm and, perhaps most notably, Theatre de la Jeune Lune—were part of the complex web of effort and ambition that people make when a community is forming, then boiling and spilling over. Today’s community stands on the shoulders of these theaters, and many artists from these companies went on to other theaters and other work in the Twin Cities.
Playwright Barbara Field remembers 1971 as a particularly fertile year, the same year that new artistic director Michael Langham regenerated an imperiled Guthrie Theater and ushered in a set of seasons some still remember as a golden age at that theater. Field notes that artistic fertility is not confined by discipline: “In one year, like spontaneous generation, four or five organizations came into existence: the Playwrights’ Center, Film in the Cities, the Composer’s Forum, the Loft Literary Center and a dance aggregate called the Minnesota Dance Alliance. It happened because the community, or at least the funding community, was hungry for something more than a big theater. They funded these organizations that didn’t produce. All they did was develop.”
The Playwrights’ Center is now one of the largest organizations of its kind in the country, and arguably one of the keys to the vitality of the Twin Cities theater community. It began on a very small scale, and once again a class at the University of Minnesota is an important element of the story. Field, a founding member, recalls, “A small handful of playwrights from Charles Nolte’s playwriting class got together in the early seventies and thought, ‘Well, how can we get our plays produced? We need to be unified in some way to form leverage to get them seen and heard.’ In the beginning, it wasn’t any more than just wanting to have people hear our work. Every Saturday night, the designated playwright would buy a case of beer.”
Field continues: “We started at 10:30 or 11 after other shows had come down so we could have actors, and people would stumble in and we could have an audience. It only occurred to us after a year or two, after we got a couple of productions, that we were missing something important. ‘How can we make the plays better?’ We can just sit here for a very long time, but we need some dramaturgical input. At that point the foundations came aboard, and that’s how it began.”
Philanthropy steps in
Chronology becomes elusive when considering the growth of something that might resemble various streams of water combining into a deep pool. One steady flow came from philanthropic institutions that provided a strong underpinning, particularly as societal expectations shifted away from an assumption that theater should pay for itself and toward a recognition that the value of arts activities warrants a measure of public and private support.
Teresa Eyring is the executive director of New York’s Theatre Communications Group, an organization founded in 1961 to promote American theater. Eyring came through both the Guthrie and the Children’s Theatre Company as a manager before moving to the national perch. Of theater in the Twin Cities she says, “In the sixties and seventies, when the theater movement was really taking off in this country, there was a very strong base of support. It was a combination of the resources that were generated through some of the major corporations and businesses in the Twin Cities, the philanthropic inclination of those companies and the families that founded them. These were people who really thought it was important. They came together with others who had financial resources and a passion about making the community as strong as it could be from a cultural perspective.”
Eyring also cites a unified sense of civic responsibility in the Twin Cities: “There’s a sense of people really caring about the well-being of the community and giving something of themselves to ensure that is realized.”
Leaders in the theater community are most admiring, and most appreciative of the philanthropic climate in the Twin Cities. Mixed Blood artistic director Jack Reuler reflects, “There’s a saying that when fundraisers die and go to heaven, they go to Minneapolis. I think that philanthropy is actually born out of altruism, born out of belief in community. People in the philanthropic community are linking human services and the cultural climate. It’s the major corporations, it’s the family foundations, and the handing over of generational fortunes will only allow philanthropy to grow.”
Jeremy Cohen of the Playwrights’ Center puts it another way. “For theater artists in particular, there is a really vibrant audience base here and a very highly intelligent philanthropic community. That perfect story allows a powerfully deep level of support.”
Philanthropic dollars not only support arts institutions but also make direct support of theater artists possible. Playwrights’ Center, for example, also supports the cluster of theater artists—actors, directors—who are necessary to the process of new play development. “If you think of artists as the thinkers of your society,” says actor and playwright Aditi Kapil, “and if you look to our artists to be generating the work that will be most relevant in this moment, you want them fully fueled. You want them fully engaged in the world around them.”
For Kapil, the availability of arts funding was an important component in her decision to establish a career in the Twin Cities and why she never moved to New York. “It made it possible for me, as a person subsisting in the arts, to explore all the other facets of what I could be as an art maker and to become a theater artist who does all of these things. Why? Because I didn’t have to be waiting tables and running from audition to audition to then get a role that paid me bus fare, which is the reality in New York.”
The Legacy Amendment
Public funding for the arts in Minnesota is also strong. Eyring is particularly struck by an effort unique to this state: “I’ve not heard of any other state that passed anything like the Legacy Amendment, where fishing and hunting and wildlife and the arts are in the same funding pool.”
Reuler calls the Legacy Amendment a “significant game changer that really speaks to the progressive nature of a few politicians. That was won two-to-one during the lowest time in the American economy in the last 60 years. That speaks not just about how Minnesotans want clean water but also how they value the arts. We are at a time when the arts are recognized as a catalyst for change, as a quality of life ingredient that is undeniable.”
The Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota constitution was shepherded into law in 2008 by Minnesota state senator Richard Cohen, a longtime theater and arts supporter. Linked to the sales tax, the amendment allows Minnesotans to invest more than $1.2 billion in Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund projects and programs over the 25-year life of the tax.
“Outdoor recreational activity is a significant part of life in Minnesota,” says Cohen, “but arts and cultural activity is equally significant. My thought was if we’re going to take care of one, we should take care of both.”
Cohen is proud of the Legacy Amendment. He says, “If you look nationally, the combination of general fund and Legacy dollars going to the arts in Minnesota is very close to the expenditures in New York; we’re number two. And on a per capita basis, Minnesota is number one by far.” From Cohen’s perspective “not only as an audience member, but [also] as a government figure in the Twin Cities,” he asserts, “I think the significance of the theatrical arts community is one of the defining parts of Twin Cities life. Our cultural life doesn’t exist in many other places.”
Philanthropic contributions and public funding support the growth in a creative community and build a climate hospitable to creators. The evidence for both growth and hospitality is ample. Children’s Theatre Company artistic director Peter Brosius cites the wide range of individuals who chose to start a theater in the Twin Cities, “from Tyrone [Guthrie] to Jack Reuler to Michelle [Hensley] to Bonnie [Morris] and Michael [Robins] to Lou [Bellamy]. You’ve got a whole group of people, and more and more and more, who were able to take an idiosyncratic vision of what theater can and should be, and succeed in making the work they wanted to make.”
“The fact that this community allowed, supported, encouraged, nurtured that, sets a tone for others,” he continues. “So you have a Pangea and you have a Mu Performing Arts and Teatro del Pueblo, extraordinary companies that make [the] work they want to make, for the audience they want to serve and the aesthetics they want to work in. It is a community filled with engaging and inspiring artists. It is a joy to be part of that vision and energy.”
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