The Other Guthrie
The state’s most celebrated theater opens its big, bold, and, well, blue new building this month. But much of the company’s work—from tours to camps to training tomorrow’s Oscar winners—has nothing to do with the plays you’ll see inside.
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The sun has not yet risen on a snowy February day as three actors pile into a Subaru SUV outside the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and head south toward Austin. A thespian stirring before dawn is likely to have stayed up all night, and these actors—Randy Reyes, a Guthrie teaching artist; Kirsten Frantzich, an actress and cabaret performer; and Stevie Ray, well-known for his improv comedy troupe—are shivering with sleep deprivation and cold, as though rehearsing a play about insomnia. “He’s never seen 7 a.m.,” Ray jokes about Reyes.
To most Minnesotans, the Guthrie is a stage and seats and wine in the lobby. It’s A Christmas Carol every winter with the family. But the 43-year-old institution has long been more than that. Since 1971, the Guthrie has taken its shows on tour, pulling full-scale productions into Midwestern towns from Fargo to Faribault and holding student workshops along the way.
This year’s tour has been suspended as the Guthrie moves into its new $125 million facility, which opens later this month on the Mississippi riverfront. But the Guthrie is still committed to outreach. So Ray, Reyes, and Frantzich, along with Guthrie education director Beth Burns, are making the nearly two-hour trek to spend a day with high-school students in Austin.
While the Guthrie’s educational programs are much less glamorous—and receive far less attention—than its mainstage performances, they are as essential to the theater’s mission as Richard Iglewski tromping the boards in collar and codpiece. In fact, the need for additional classroom space helped drive the move to a larger facility.
Tyrone Guthrie, despite famously saying, “Everyone who goes to the theater has a right to his own opinion, but he doesn’t have a right to have it taken seriously,” was a certain kind of populist. The kind who wanted everyone to see theater so long as the productions were, by his measure, classic drama. His namesake company was a regional outpost of Broadway-quality repertory at a time when there was little middle ground between New York City’s legendary Great White Way and community theaters. Today, the Guthrie continues to serve a several-state area, broadening minds and its constituency through tours, classes, camps, residencies, and workshops, under the auspices of the newly formed Guthrie Learning Center. Burns, who is passing coffee and donuts to the awakening actors in the Subaru, is the center’s director and, today at least, its chauffeur.
Burns has been hitting the highway with Guthrie actors since 1998. “I swear I’ve been on every two-lane in the state,” she says. One of the smallest towns the troupe ever pulled into was Madison, population 1,700, in the southwest corner of Minnesota. But it was also, they say, perhaps the best place they’ve performed. Sure, the Shakespeareans initially felt a little out of place; it was hunting season, and deer were being skinned in the hotel’s back room. But the city’s reception was enthusiastic. Officials gave the actors “Lou T. Fisk” T-shirts (Madison considers itself the lutefisk capital of the country), and the company played to a full house. “I think everyone in town came to the show,” Burns recalls. Afterward, a potluck was held in the Guthrie’s honor. “We are huge on the potluck supper circuit,” says Burns.
Burns knows her hotdish. She grew up in Austin, and as she drives the troupe into her hometown, she points out landmarks: a supper club advertising an “All-you-can-eat Valentine’s Day dinner” and the Hormel meatpacking plant that cranks out 435 cans of luncheon meat a minute. The workshops are being held at Riverland Community College, and the school buses disgorging students outside it bear the hyphenated names, such as Waterville-Elysian-Morristown, typical of rural school districts, which often encompass several townships. The students live many miles from the Guthrie Theater, but that doesn’t mean they’re unfamiliar with it. Because of outreach efforts and a generous student-ticketing program, a kid from, say, Grand Rapids might have as many as 10 encounters with Guthrie programs in a year.
Frantzich, the actress, gathers 35 of the high schoolers beneath a basketball hoop in the gymnasium. The kids are wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with such slogans as “Waseca Hockey” and “Smell you later,” a Simpsons TV show reference. Frantzich sports tight designer jeans and a belt buckle big as a Spam can. She announces her rules of improvisational theater: one, have fun; two, be a fool. “When in doubt,” she says, “freak us out.” With that, she cranks some salsa music on a boombox and begins a game.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and the game is “I Love You.” The students stand in a circle. One kid eyes another, who fires an imaginary arrow toward a third, who pretends to receive it and die a dramatic death. The idea is to reach out to each other—transmitting one’s energy, as it were—as quickly as possible. An actor’s body, Frantzich lectures, is the source of an actor’s energy, and the more comfortable actors are with their bodies the better they can project that energy across a stage. At first, the kids are shy and a little slow on the pickup. “I don’t know if I want your energy if it’s kind of limp,” Frantzich says, and gets a few unanticipated chuckles.
Next, the group plays a game in which a student stares at someone until that person realizes he or she has been singled out and shouts “yes!” That student gazes at a third one, and the cycle continues. The kids are eager now. “Say yes!” Frantzich cries. “Yeah, baby!” shouts a student.
Stevie Ray teaches improv comedy techniques through a theater game called “Guess That Profession.” Students go through the motions of a job, charades-style, until their partners guess what it is. These kids choose to portray professions like “quilter” and “veterinarian.” But it’s clear that when it comes to theater, they are no different from their urban counterparts—the stage is a universal outlet for self-expression. Don’t censor yourself, Ray advises. When it’s your turn to speak, say the first thing that comes to mind. “We go through life judging every idea we’ve got and it slows us down,” he explains. The high schoolers nod in understanding.