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.

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.

 THE GUTHRIE’S OUTREACH does not end with high school. Its recent production of Hamlet, for instance, was historic not just because it was the last show to be staged in the company’s original theater. Or, for that matter, because 24-year-old Santino Fontana was the youngest actor ever to portray Hamlet at the Guthrie.
The show is notable also because Fontana and co-star Leah Curney, who played Ophelia, are 2004 graduates in the first class of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. Combining liberal arts classes with actor education, the program may be the only one of its kind in the country. Certainly it is the most prestigious, and its graduates are showing up on stages from New York to Los Angeles.

The BFA program admits just 20 new students per year, selected during a nationwide audition tour. The Guthrie and the U cooperatively create a curriculum for the acting classes; the students spend one day a week training at the Guthrie and the rest of their time in traditional classes.

The program was begun in part to instill a love for the stage in young actors before they are swept up in higher-paying work for television and film. Fontana studied mythology, political science, biology, and other disciplines in addition to acting, and he believes this background gave him a better grasp of Hamlet’s historical sweep than he would have gotten from a traditional arts conservatory.

Fontana and his classmates could well become the next crop of great actors, and the Guthrie knows it. When the theater broke ground on its new site in 2003, BFA students stood on risers beside the river and sung a Stephen Sondheim lyric: “We’re the movers, and we’re the shapers. We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers.”

The Guthrie also offers non-credit acting classes for those not necessarily headed to Hollywood. A typical semester includes beginning, intermediate, and advanced acting classes as well as more specialized programs, such as storytelling with actor and playwright Kevin Kling, and acting for the camera with Don Cosgrove, founder of the Talent Center acting school in West St. Paul. Four classrooms in the new Guthrie are available for adult-learning programs, but tonight, in freezing winter, Cosgrove’s class meets in a backstage boardroom. A row of lockers covers one wall; a few theater seats lean against another.

Cosgrove’s students are learning to appear dynamic on camera, training for work in commercials, TV, and movies…and tonight. This evening, the last session of the class, they are presenting full-fledged monologues. One woman plays a teenager fawning over her date. Cosgrove, a genial and energetic instructor, encourages the woman to speak faster and more excitedly. “Lay rubber,” he says. Cosgrove is constantly reassuring—and an incorrigible kidder. When a student plays a coma patient in a classmate’s skit, he deadpans, “Bob, this’ll be one of the best performances you’ve ever given.”

As the class comes to a close, Cosgrove discusses how each student’s talents might best be used in the film and entertainment world. To the woman with the dating skit, he says, “supermodel” and “the lead in a sitcom.” To a large man with glasses: the second or third banana in a sitcom. “The guy who kinda gets dumped on,” Cosgrove explains, and the man nods in agreement. To a talented fellow whose rubber face would put Jim Carrey to shame, Cosgrove says, “the courage to make a fool of yourself is a real advantage in this business” and tells him to think about game shows. To a white-haired woman with an authoritative (read: stiff) style, Cosgrove has one word: “industrials”—the kind of films manufacturing firms use to instruct their employees in worker safety. See you in the movies.

When the Guthrie Theater reopens, two more initiatives will be launched. The Art of Business Institute will teach theater skills, including voice projection and persuasive speaking, to corporate and professional folks looking to become more effective in their presentations and more creative in their work. The Lifelong Learning Institute will offer seminars on the background and context of plays the Guthrie is currently producing.

The tours, meanwhile, will be suspended for at least one more year. The tours stopped once before, in the mid-1980s, and when Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling restarted the program in 2000 with a massive, three-semi-truck tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the pent-up demand was palpable. Only a personal appearance by Shakespeare himself might have inspired a stronger audience response.

In South Dakota, a group of waitresses from Chamberlain (population 2,347) drove 125 miles to Sioux Falls to see the show. They then drove 180 miles to see it again in Rapid City. When the cast stopped to eat at a roadside diner, truckers inquired about the show and, sure enough, several of them later caught a performance in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The production attracted so much attention, in fact, that New York Times drama critic Bruce Weber came out to see it in Austin. In a moment straight from the movie Waiting for Guffman, the power went out in the auditorium on the day Weber showed up. Nevertheless, his review was ecstatic. “It would be hard to imagine better theater,” he wrote.

The Guthrie’s first season in its new facility will commence in July with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a theatrical adaptation of the novel. Beginning this era beside the state’s most iconic waterway with the masterwork of a native son, the Guthrie is pointedly planting its regional roots once again. But the Mississippi is also the storied passageway of dreamers and fortune-seekers. And you, too, can now head to the river and take a class at the Guthrie—or wait for one to come to you—and live a more dramatic life.

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.

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