Memories of the Guthrie

The original Guthrie exterior
The lights at the Guthrie theater are about to go dark for good. This is the exterior of the Guthrie Theater in the mid-1960s, as designed by architect Ralph Rapson.
Photo by Terry Garvey, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1965, Sir Tyrone Guthrie wowed audiences and critics with his interpretation of Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard." It starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and was so well-received it ended up being captured on record.

The trademark "G" of the Guthrie Theater, in neon, hangs in the lobby.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

From the works of Chekhov, Shakespeare, O'Neill and Genet to the songs of Bruce Springsteen and the Blind Boys of Alabama, 43 years of theater and music at the Guthrie have left a mark on the souls of Minnesotans such as Jane Krentz.

"I, like many people, went to the Guthrie for the very first time with my high school English class, from Edison High School, and I absolutely was enchanted," says Krentz.

Krentz has worked as a volunteer in the Guthrie box office for the last 35 years. Even her seven-year stint as a Minnesota State senator from May Township couldn't pull her away from her duties.

Opening night
The audience on the Guthrie's opening night performance, May 7, 1963. The Guthrie's signature thrust stage is a hallmark of the theater.
Photo by Brimacombe, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Krentz remembers sneaking away from school and standing in the Guthrie rush line, hoping there would be an extra ticket. When she started working there, Krentz used to hang out in the dram shop upstairs, helping actors with their lines.

Some of her happiest memories occurred at the Guthrie.

"My favorite place would be the stage, for sure," she says. "The way the thrust stage comes out into the audience and really makes the audience connect to what's going on on stage."

That thrust stage, in which the audience surrounds the actors on three sides, has always been a Guthrie hallmark.

The current stage
The stage at the current Guthrie, set up for the production of "Hamlet," which will be the last play performed there.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

Veteran Guthrie actor Isabel Monk O'Connor says the stage is aptly named, "because you literally are thrusted out into the audience. They become as much a part of your performance as any other actor on the stage because most of the time, 90 percent of the time, you can see every face."

Monk O'Connor says that intimacy with the audience virtually guarantees each performance will be different, because each audience is different.

"That's thrilling," she says, "and there's nowhere to hide. There's nowhere to hide because there's not enough furniture on the set to hide you from anybody."

Monk O'Connor is pleased there will also be a thrust stage in the new Guthrie.

In a little hallway next to the entrance to stage left is the office of Stage Crew Supervisor Brian Crow. Crow has a love-hate relationship with his work space.

Brian Crow
Brian Crow began his career at the Guthrie in 1983 as a spotlight operator. He's now stage crew supervisor.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

He says there's not enough privacy even to make a phone call.

"But there's something great about it, to be in the middle of it. Hamlet's going to run by me a couple times a day on his way off stage or on stage. And in 'Christmas Carol,' the whole cast comes through the office a couple of times. So you're always in the middle of it, and you have a sense of being part of the show."

Brian Crow began his career in 1983, running spotlights. In recent years, he's realized work has been about doing more with less space.

When Crow tells stories about the Guthrie, he's more likely to focus on what has gone wrong, because nobody's supposed to notice when things go right. He's had to fix stage elevators that have stalled mid-show. He's seen large pieces of scenery fall on stage. Once, some tracking scenery got hung up during an important scene.

Old Guthrie lobby
The lobby of the Guthrie Theater. Rumors have long circulated of an usher who committed suicide and now haunts the theater.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"That's when I learned you can't stop the show," Crow says. "They pushed me and another guy out on stage in the middle of a show, in genie lifts and man lifts, to go free up a piece of scenery that was stuck. And we're right downstage and we're tugging on this stuff and the actors are still talking and emoting, and they didn't stop until we had to turn the lights on so we could see what we were doing, you know? We had to tackle 'em to get 'em to stop acting."

Some events, both on stage and off, have become part of Guthrie lore. In early 2002, two water mains broke, filling offices, dressing rooms, production and storage areas with nearly 55,000 gallons of water. For a long time, rumors have circulated about an usher who committed suicide, and now allegedly haunts the Guthrie halls.

But the real legacy the old Guthrie leaves is the deep connection between perfomers and audiences.

For music lovers and musicians, the Guthrie is as hallowed a venue as for theatergoers.

Frank Zappa and band
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played at the Guthrie Theater in 1969. Zappa included a song from that show on his 1970 record, "Chunga's Revenge."
Photo copyright Tom Berthiaume

"The very first rock concert that I ever went to was at the Guthrie, in 1969 when I was 14 years old," recalls Mark Trehus, owner of Treehouse Records in Minneapolis. "Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and there was a then-unknown warm-up group called Alice Cooper. Amazing show, and Frank was at his sarcastic best as well. I thought, 'Wow, there's a whole 'nother world out there that you don't know about coming from the suburbs.' It was a real eye-opening experience and I went back there often."

Frank Zappa ended up including a song from that Guthrie show on his 1970 record, "Chunga's Revenge."

Mark Trehus says the proximity of the Guthrie's seats to the stage, its sightlines and acoustics allowed the audience to concentrate on the performance.

"It was very easy to focus in on the details, the intricacies of someone's playing or even facial expressions. There wasn't another room in town that provided that level of comfort, intimacy and sightlines, sound. It was just the best space for the combination of those things."

The stories of past Guthrie glories and fiascos will continue long after the old building is gone. What's tougher is saying goodbye. People who have a close association with the Guthrie will probably feel like they're leaving a piece of themselves behind.

Mark Trehus
Mark Trehus, owner of Treehouse Records in Minneapolis. Trehus says the Guthrie is also an incredible music venue.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"I'll miss my advantage," says Brian Crow. "I know where all the light switches are. You know? I know which wires to wiggle to make stuff work. I know how it's all supposed to happen. In the new building nobody has an advantage. We're all starting fresh."

"I'm sure the new space is going to be just great as well," says Mark Trehus. "But not being able to go to that room in that location with all that history. That's something that you can't replace."

"I'm totally excited about the new theater and the opportunities it's going to present, and I was a strong advocate for it at the Legislature," Jane Krentz says. "But it's still sort of like seeing your childhood home bulldozed, and you feel a little sadness that it's not going to be there."

"I don't do well with saying goodbye," Isabel Monk O'Connor confesses. "I'm not a good goodbye person. So I'll probably just look around the room, look at the door as I shut it and say, 'Thanks. Thank you.'"

A community celebration for the new Guthrie will be held June 25. The new season starts July 21 with an adaptation of "The Great Gatsby."

Officials at the Walker Art Center, owner of the Vineland Place complex, say the old Guthrie will be torn down sometime late this summer.