This is the fiftieth year anniversary of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. There are many galas and events on the schedule, in their new multi-million dollar complex overlooking the Mississippi. The original theater, seating 1400, designed by Ralph Rapson with an exquisite thrust stage designed by Tanya Moiseiwisch, was where I worked and learned about classical theater from some of the finest British, Canadian and American artists living.
There will be many stories here about Doctor Guthrie. I never met him, but he was a major influence on those who’ve been a major influence on me. He was a Johnny Appleseed of great theater, leaving his roots in England, the Old Vic, and Broadway to found theater companies such as The Stratford Festival in Ontario and The Guthrie, where I was a member for five years under Doctor Guthrie’s protegee, Michael Langham (interviewed above at Stratford), arguably the finest interpreter of Shakespeare in the latter half of the 20th Century.
Guthrie was a patrician Irishman with a family home in Monaghan, a brilliant eccentric, demanding and savvy. He was about 6’6 and had foot problems causing him to always wore tennis shoes. There’s a story about how in the early rehearsals for the first Guthrie production, George Grizzard’s “Hamlet”, the air conditioning in the theater was not yet connected and it was sweltering, yet Doctor Guthrie insisted on wearing a thin raincoat and his tennis shoes. Finally someone asked how he could seem so comfortable and he replied, “Nothing to it, old boy,” and opened his coat to reveal just his underwear.
He believed in the power of the thrust stage to re-establish the intimacy and immediacy of classical theater. The acting area is thrust into the auditorium so that the action is surrounded by audience on three sides. The dialogue “This is Illyria, lady” is all that is needed to place the events. The space is left open so that the play can move from scene to scene as swiftly as the actors can enter and exit. Actor, audience, text and imagination = great theater. Doctor Guthrie believed in the power of the English language, the ritualistic magic of theater, and the delights of the intellect. Religion and circus. He was a giant.
Christopher Plummer on Tyrone Guthrie.