Guthrie Theater brings curtain down on original home

The first Hamlet
"Hamlet," the first production at the Guthrie Theater, opened May 7, 1963. Pictured are George Grizzard as Hamlet, Jessica Tandy as Gertrude and members of the company. It was directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie.
Photo by Marty Nordstrom, courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

(AP) - When Hamlet is bid a final "good night, sweet prince" on the Guthrie Theater stage, it also will mark a farewell to a venerated auditorium that helped birth the U.S. regional theater movement.

Opening night
The audience on the Guthrie's opening night performance, May 7, 1963.
Photo by Brimacombe, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The old Guthrie will dim its lights 43 years to the day that it opened -- also with "Hamlet" -- on May 7, 1963.

Artistic director Joe Dowling believes Guthrie, a British theatrical director who died in 1971, would have approved of the new theater, which sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in the old flour-milling district of downtown Minneapolis.

"Guthrie was an innovator. Guthrie was a man who believed in change. All his life he promoted new ideas, new thoughts," Dowling says.

He points out that Guthrie did Shakespeare in modern dress, reintroduced the thrust stage -- in which the audience surrounds the actors on three sides -- and believed that the Mississippi was a big attraction in Minneapolis.

Sir Tyrone Guthrie
Sir Tyrone Guthrie.
Photo courtesy of The Guthrie Theater

But the theater outgrew its old digs. While the Guthrie had an open-ended lease with the adjacent Walker Art Center, the 87,000-square-foot theater -- which has about 350 people on payroll when the season is in full swing -- had no room to expand, Dowling says.

But not everyone is ready to accept the end of the old Guthrie, which probably faces the wrecking ball late this summer.

"It was essentially the first enclosed theater built for a thrust stage in North America. It clearly put Minneapolis on the cultural map," says Royce Yeater, Midwest director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Advocates for saving the Guthrie argue that it should be preserved for its cultural significance, its modernist exterior design by local architect Ralph Rapson and its acoustics.

The original Guthrie exterior
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

"We are still maintaining hope that the Walker will see the light and actually try to sell the building, because we'd think it would be a wonderful investment opportunity for someone," says Paul Metsa, founder of

But the Walker conducted a reuse study five years ago and found no groups to take over the Guthrie space. The study also found that renovating and operating the theater would be too expensive.

The Walker, which reopened last year after a $73 million expansion, plans to demolish the old Guthrie to make way for an expansion of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Meanwhile, workers are finishing up as the new Guthrie prepares for a summer opening.

Signature stage
The thrust stage, which is the signature feature of the original Guthrie Theater, is replicated at the new Guthrie facility.
Image courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the 285,000-square-foot new Guthrie features a curved, glass-and-blue-metallic facade at one end, two towering stacks resembling modern grain elevators and a bridge extending toward the Mississippi.

There are three stages. The first is a re-creation of the famed thrust stage with seats for 1,100 -- slightly smaller than the current 1,300-seat thrust stage, but with wider seats, more legroom and better sight lines. The other two are a proscenium or "picture-frame" stage with 700 seats, and a stage for experimental works that can seat up to 200.

Ghostly images from past Guthrie productions highlight the new theater, which will bring patrons from the ground-level box office by way of escalator to the fourth-floor main stages.

There are bars, restaurants and panoramic views of the roiling Mississippi and the historic Stone Arch Bridge. Dr. William McGuire, CEO of UnitedHealth Group and a Guthrie donor, is donating adjacent land -- now a parking lot -- for a park.

Hamlet and Ophelia
Santino Fontana as Hamlet and Leah Curney as Ophelia in the 2006 Guthrie Theater production of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Photo copywright Michal Daniel, courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

A gala opening featuring actor George Grizzard, who played the Danish prince in the Guthrie's original "Hamlet" in 1963, and actress Zoe Caldwell, who also performed in the Guthrie's inaugural season, will be held June 24 for donors. A free, public opening follows on June 25.

The Guthrie's first season in its new space opens July 21 with a new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Neil Simon's "Lost in Yonkers," Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing" and the musical "1776" also are featured in the first season.

Santino Fontana, a 24-year-old who plays Hamlet in the Guthrie's last production on its old stage, notes that "Hamlet" doesn't end with his death, but with someone else taking power - like the Guthrie itself.

"This thing isn't going to end with this production - it's going to keep going," Fontana says.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)