Guthrie lights up over new digs

Wurtele Thrust Stage opens July 15 with new 'Gatsby'

MINNEAPOLIS — Fireworks lit up the sky over the Mississippi as the new $125 million waterfront Guthrie Theater opened to the public June 24, with a full day of performances. While completion of the new theater on time and on budget is cause for celebration, the real work has yet to begin in the 285,000-square-foot, three-stage complex.

“Overall, we’re feeling like we’re settling in,” says Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling. “And now it’s time to start doing the work.”

The Guthrie’s main Wurtele Thrust Stage opens July 15 with a new adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” a nod to Minnesota’s cultural influence, via St. Paul native son F. Scott Fitzgerald. David Esbjornson directs a script by Simon Levy that incorporates dialogue and scenes from the original novel.

Construction on the new Guthrie took less than three years from start to finish, and a tour of its nine-story confines reveals both the grand scale and meticulous attention to detail in Jean Nouvel’s design. (The Guthrie is the first completed U.S. project for French architect Nouvel, whose award-winning work includes the Lyon Opera House.)

The theater makes its first impression with its bulk and striking deep-blue exterior. Constructed of steel and glass, it is adorned with images from the theater’s 43-year history screened onto steel panels varying in size from several feet to several stories.

The next striking feature, once inside, is the three-story escalator that takes visitors from the first floor to the fourth, where the three theaters are accessed from a central lobby. Once upstairs, the reason for this potentially choice becomes clear — the view encompasses the Mississippi River, the old Minneapolis milling district and the city skyline to the east.

The Guthrie’s thrust stage from its previous Vineland Place home (slated for demolition) has been re-created in the new space, with minor modifications for better sightlines and more spacious seating. In addition to the 1,100-seat main stage, the complex houses a 700-seat proscenium stage for works previously staged off-site in the annual Guthrie Lab series, as well as a 200-seat black box to stage productions by small companies.

Dowling, who has led the Guthrie since 1995, is predictably effusive about his new digs: “In a word: We love it.”

He also acknowledges the suddenly grander scale on which his already big-budget regional theater is operating.

“Our challenges include moving from being one and a half theaters to being a three-theater organization,” Dowling says. “The shift requires us to move into thinking more long-term than in the past, in our relationships with writers and designers, as well as possibilities to diversify and grow our audience.”

Locally there’s been skeptical reaction to the Guthrie’s 2006-07 season. In addition to “Gatsby,” programming includes Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers” and “The Merchant of Venice.” Plays on the McGuire Proscenium stage include works by Tom Stoppard, Alfred Uhry, Tennessee Williams and George Bernard Shaw. The proscenium opens early with the June 27 North American premiere of Ireland’s Druid Theater Company’s “DruidSynge,” prior to its Lincoln Center Festival run.

Dowling admits to hearing the charges of artistic conservatism, but he deflects them by describing why each play selected for the new season is artistically vital, and how it ties into the larger American cultural dialogue.

“I think there’s an inevitability in the argument that in a new theater people ought to do fancy new things,” Dowling says. “But we didn’t say we were moving to have a different mission. We moved to have better facilities. It would be very foolish to ask an audience not only to move location but to also develop a taste for different theater.”

Dowling has a point. Touring these new digs, with seemingly infinite space — a walk-through revealed on-site set construction, costume production, airy rehearsal space and even a room devoted to wig production — a sense emerges of a theater given all the tools it needs to produce promising and, hopefully, transformative work. The coming years will see whether this lofty promise yields results to match.

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