Thoughts on the Guthrie Theater’s 2011-2012 season

April 19, 2011

The Guthrie Theater announced its next season today. Of the fourteen plays that the Guthrie will produce in 2011-2012, every single piece was written by a male playwright. There remain several TBA directors, but as of the announcement today, only one director is a woman–Marcela Lorca, Head of Movement at the Guthrie, whose tenure predates that of the current Artistic Director Joe Dowling.

“The Guthrie is fulfilling its promise to our community,” said Dowling, “deepening the variety of offerings, developing richer relationships with local artists, introducing the work of artists from around the globe, and fostering the theater’s next generation.” 

Let’s take a look:

On the Guthrie’s largest stage, the Wurtele Thrust:

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, directed by Joe Dowling
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams, directed by Lisa Peterson*
Hay Fever by Noel Coward, directed by Christopher Luscombe
A Christmas Carol, adapted by Crispin Whittell, directed by Joe Dowling
The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, directed by Lou Bellamy (Penumbra Theatre Production)
The Sunshine Boys by Neil Simon, directed by Gary Gisselman

On the McGuire Proscenium:

Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney, directed by Marcela Lorca
Charley’s Aunt by Brendan Thomas, directed by John Miller-Stephany
Time Stands Still by Donald Marguiles, directed by Joe Dowling
End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, directed by Terry Johnson (remount from London)
Roman Holiday by Paul Blake with songs by Noel Coward, directed by John Miller-Stephany (adaption of the film)

In the Dowling Studio:

The Edge of Our Bodies by Adam Rapp, directed by Ben McGovern
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Rob Melrose (The Acting Company production)
The Birds by Conor McPherson, directed by Henry Wishcamper
The BFA New Plays, writers and directors TBA
A Guthrie Experience, writer/director TBA
…more TBA…

The variety of offerings?  The Guthrie will produce one play written by a non-white artist this season, and that’s The Amen Corner by James Baldwin–in a production by Penumbra Theatre Company. While I think it’s great that for the first time the Guthrie is making Penumbra’s work part of their subscriber season (as opposed to the Guthrie-hosted Penumbra productions of the last several years), I can’t help but feel that Joe Dowling is patting himself on the back for farming out the job of diversity and multicultural representation on the Guthrie’s stages. OK, so the Guthrie is never going to do a better Amen Corner than Penumbra (at least with its current roster of artistic staff), but does that mean that it shouldn’t even try to produce work that isn’t written by white men, as every single one of their upcoming plays for the next season is? I’m not claiming that you can’t have ‘variety’ without ethnic diversity, but it sure does help. Eleven plays by white dudes, directed by white dudes? As a friend commented on facebook: “Well, at least they’re consistent.”

Speaking of the Guthrie’s current roster of artistic staff: developing richer relationships with local artists? Of the announced directors, two of them have never worked at the Guthrie before, and neither are local artists. Henry Wishcamper, who will direct Conor McPherson’s The Birds in the Dowling Studio, is based out of New York City; London-based Terry Johnson’s production The End of The Rainbow is transferring from London. Every other director announced thus far has worked multiple times at the Guthrie. Minneapolis has a number of exciting directors whose work has never been seen at the Guthrie. Of the fourteen productions announced, five are directed by the same two people–Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling and Guthrie Associate Artistic Director John Miller-Stephany. Spread the wealth, dudes. I’m not exactly clear what local artists are benefiting from these ‘richer relationships’ other than the White Dude Club.

And what about local writers? Thanks in large part to the presence of The Playwright’s Center, Minneapolis is a hub for exciting playwrights, a number of whom have been commissioned by the Guthrie (a good proportion of them writing for the BFA New Plays in the Studio). But where are the productions of those plays? Carson Kreitzer’s Behind The Eye was developed in Minneapolis at Playwright’s Center, but its world premiere is taking place in Cincinnati, where it opened a few weeks ago at the Cincinnati Playhouse. Steppenwolf is transferring yet another new play to Broadway, and this time it’s Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, a script also developed in a Minneapolis zip code. Little Eyes, by Workhaus Collective playwright Cory Hinkle was performed in the Dowling Studio in this current season. But where is the mainstage, fully-produced Guthrie production of a new script by a ‘local artist’?

Another issue I have: The idea propounded by Dowling, quoted above, that the Guthrie’s season is introducing to audiences the work of artists “from around the globe.” Well, if by ‘around the globe’ Dowling means ‘from the US and the UK,’ well then, well done. Five of the fourteen playwrights of the 2011-2012 season are American, the remainder are from the UK.

The Guthrie, under the tenure of Joe Dowling, has endeavored to develop “the theatre’s next generation” mainly by sustaining the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program and the Guthrie Experience for Actors in Training (a summer program for MFA acting students). Joe Dowling has demonstrated his support especially of the BFA Program by explicitly programming part of the Guthrie’s season with consideration for potential roles for BFA alumni and current students (this season the anointed show is the British farce Charley’s Aunt, written by a Dead White Dude named Brandon Thomas; it will be directed by John Miller-Stephany). The BFA Program is also indebted to Dowling for the negotiation of the producing agreement with The Acting Company, which stipulates that at least half of their casts must be composed of Guthrie-trained actors, derived either from the BFA program or the MFA summer program. It should be noted, though, that while the Guthrie spends millions on the sets and costumes for its mainstage shows, the BFA program is chronically underfunded and under-supported, losing potential students every year to better-funded programs that can afford to offer their students financial support for tuition. BFA productions operate on a budget of $50 (for those keeping score, that’s less than 0.005% of an average production budget at the Guthrie) and on vanishingly spare support from the Guthrie’s infrastructure.

But besides the Guthrie’s BFA program, how does it ‘foster the theatre’s next generation’? What part of the development of the theatre’s next generation is it supporting?

Is it the artists? Kudos to the Guthrie’s support of the BFA program, but there are other artists in the theatre besides actors. How is the Guthrie fostering the development of the next generation of theatre directors? As mentioned above, all but two of the directors announced for this upcoming season are Guthrie veterans of three or more shows, and the remaining two are hardly new directors. While it would be really exciting to see the Guthrie take a risk on a young director in one of their two main spaces, even in the Studio (which both in its present form and in its earlier incarnation as the Guthrie Lab ostensibly functions/functioned as a bastion of experimentation) the directors are either established Guthrie artists (Ben McGovern) or an established, non-local director (Rob Melrose and Henry Wishcamper). To be clear: I’m not knocking these directors. I’m probably most excited about the projects of McGovern, Melrose, and Wishcamper in the upcoming season. I’m just pointing out that even in what would be in theory the Guthrie’s best venue for collaborating with unproven artists, they mitigate their artistic risks with the panacea of an established track record.
*[Lisa Peterson’s involvement in the season was announced months after I had written this essay. I’m happy to note the involvement of another female artist in the Guthrie’s season.]
Another part of the theatre’s next generation? The audience. What does the next generation of the theatre’s audience look like? Hint: probably not like this:

Old White Chick
Old White Dude

Why not like that? Well, sorry, but by the time we get to call it the ‘next generation’, those people gonna be dead.

Hey, wait a second, won’t there just be a new generation of old white people to become our season subscribers when our current pool goes to the Great Gig In The Sky?

Well… first of all, this group of rich white people gets proportionally smaller with each generation at this point as other cultural groups grow in size and gain cultural mass. Second, the current generation of Rich White People grew up in a world in which theatre was an important cultural event, one that helped to shape the national consciousness in a way in which it simply doesn’t today. (Not that it can’t regain cultural relevancy: it just has to give up its wooden clinging to the forms it evolved fifty years ago to suit that time. The Guthrie is among the most visible and orthodox of the perpetrators of these outdated traditions in this country.) So–how is the Guthrie planning on convincing today’s 20 and 30 year-olds that theatre is relevant when they’re 50 and 60 and 70? It’s not that theatre becomes more interesting or accessible when you’re old. The subscribers of the Guthrie, many of whom are genuine and heartfelt devotees of live theatre, by and large didn’t discover a taste for theatre once they hit menopause/started trimming their nosehairs. It was a predilection that was founded when they were young. In fact, it may have been the Guthrie Theater under the tenure of legends like Liviu Ciulei or Garland Wright whose work struck them as incisive, relevant, exciting, and challenging when they were a bit younger. It’s a pretty big imaginative leap to imagine anyone of my generation–that is, 18-30–who thinks that the Guthrie’s work right now is incisive, relevant, exciting, and challenging. When we get old, will we think of the theatre with nostalgia for the passion and imagination of the artists of our youth?

Productions that take risks, that experiment with form, that represent a unique and exemplary offering, that offer a truly contemporary form of performance–where are those? They aren’t at the Guthrie.

If the American theatre’s next generation is to be a healthy, productive, innovative one, one that pushes the theatre into the national consciousness and reasserts its relevance to the lives of Americans, the audience for this theatre must be fostered.

How to foster the development of this group? By offering them work that speaks to their experience of life. William Shakespeare, done well, can speak to any human being, I think. But surely there are contemporary writers and directors whose work speaks to the diversity of our contemporary world in more direct ways than these Old White Dudes. There are also writers and directors who understand how media-saturation has altered the aesthetic apparatuses of my generation. They make work that speaks to the contemporary experience not just in content, but in form. Where is the formal innovation of the Guthrie? What are they doing to advance the art form, to ‘foster the next generation’? When Ciulei was Artistic Director, he hired Andrei Serban and Richard Foreman as directors. When do Anne Bogart, Tina Landau, Sean Graney, David Cromer, Daniel Fish, Matthew Warchus direct at the Guthrie? When was the last time David Esbjornson did a play there? Or, closer to home, when does Jon Ferguson, Lisa Channer, Dominique Serrand direct at the Guthrie? (Yes, I know that Serrand has directed there before. That was nearly ten years ago.) A friend pointed out to me that the Guthrie is saving a lot of money by having their own staff (read: Joe Dowling, John Miller-Stephany, Marcela Lorca, Ben McGovern) direct. Well. The Guthrie spends a lot of money on its productions. Not to knock John Miller-Stephany or Marcela Lorca or Ben McGovern, but I would argue that a larger proportion of that money should go towards luring superstar/world-crushing artists to create work at the Guthrie and a smaller proportion towards creating copper-plated sets, etc. A great example of the kind of work that the Guthrie is uniquely situated to produce: Tony Kushner’s new play. They did that! It was amazing!

Imagine–a world in which the Guthrie leveraged its resources to raise the standard of artistic excellence rather than not offend its subscriber and donor base.

Maybe it’s all just a matter of taste. I just happen to think that innovation begets excellence, and that quality trumps consistency. Seeing as how their subscriber base has a rolling expiration date, the Guthrie would do well to remember that ars longa, vita brevis.