Stories from the Stage

Missed cues, costume malfunctions, and other confessions from the Guthrie’s first 50 years

1960s, 1970s, and current Guthrie Theater facades:

60s Guthrie Facade70s Guthrie FacadeGuthrie Facade Now

1970s and current Guthrie Theater thrust stages:

70s Thrust StageThrust Stage Now

Sunshine BoysRAYE BIRK

Guthrie debut: 1966
Photos: (Top, sitting) The Sunshine Boys. (Bottom) Faith Healer.

The Guthrie was the place of my initial exposure to professional theater. I came in 1966 as a McKnight Fellow and had a few small roles (I was still a student) then left to work in other theaters and in L.A. I came back to the Twin Cities in 2003 and got the role of Mr. Bennett in Faith HealerPride and Prejudice. I remember curtain call after the first preview performance: there was a waterfall of applause on all three sides. I’d forgotten entirely what that was like. I hadn’t anticipated how I’d react to that. It was emotionally overwhelming.

I’ve been in 24 plays in the 10 years since I’ve been back, and have grown to really appreciate what the Guthrie is—how much a part of the community this is. It supplies something unique to other theater and cultural entertainment here; the Guthrie is the center of storytelling for the Twin Cities and all of Minnesota. I’ve never worked in a theater in all my time like the Guthrie.


Guthrie debut: 1967
Photo (sitting): Of Mice and Men

I started here in 1967 as a McKnight Fellow, and became a full member in 1968. That was when the Guthrie was a repertory theater. We would be playing five shows at once, working from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week. I did that for 10 years.

At one point we were doing Of Mice of Men and Taming of the Shrew at the same time. I misread the schedule one night and thought we were doing Of Mice and Men. So I got dressed as Lenny. My entries for both shows were from stage right, and I realized 30 seconds before I was to enter that we were doing Shakespeare. I couldn’t miss my cue, so I entered as Lenny. People still talk about it. (Director) Michael Langham was not pleased, obviously, but it was so outrageous that he saw the humor later. I have thousand of stories like that; amazing things have happened.


Guthrie debut: 1970
Photo: H.M.S. Pinafore

One funny moment I recall involved Peter Michael Goetz. I was playing Abby Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace. I had long dangling earrings on and one got caught on my broach; my head kept bobbing back and forth sideways because of it. Well, it was too much for Peter. He started laughing and left me on stage! Just ran off and left me.

I like the thrust stage because you can turn and face the person you’re talking to. It demands diction to be better so people behind your head can hear you. When I play on a proscenium now I feel strange, like I’m a crab walking sideways.

In 1998, I got phone call from Joe (Dowling) to come here and play Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Well, I’m still here. That’s the way it goes. You go where the work is.

Midsummer Nights DreamISABELL MONK O’CONNOR

Guthrie debut: 1981
Photo: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Sally Wingert, Stephen Pelinski, Brenda Wehle, John Carrol Lynch, Bob Davis, Michael Tezla, Stephen Yoakam—those were some of us in the original repertory crew. There was another outer circle of actors that made us number about 25. Over the years I’ve watched their kids be born and grow up: Sally’s boys are both out of college, Yoakam’s are getting ready to graduate from high school. It’s really fun.

I love Ms. (Barbara) Bryne. During one show I saw her standing in the wings offstage even though she wasn’t about to be on, and asked her why. She said, “My dear, I’m holding up the play.” I have to tell you, she’s absolutely right: you cannot play cards, tell jokes, write letters home, whatever during a show. You should be back stage concentrating and listening. That’s exactly what an actors’ job is; she hit it on the head. I’ll never forget that.

Death of a SalesmanSTEPHEN YOAKAM

Guthrie debut: 1983
Photo: Death of a Salesman

The context of the 50-year anniversary is a great way to celebrate what the theater has achieved as an art space. But it’s also important to talk about where it’s going in the future and how we’re going to reach out to the next generation of arts lovers. We can’t assume we’ll have the same wave of people coming to see the arts. Theater in particular has to keep on its toes and be exciting and generative—to reflect what’s happening in the country and be socially proactive. Small theaters are great examples of being mirrors to what people are doing and reacting to it. Larger arts groups need to do that, too.

Boston MarriageSALLY WINGERT

Guthrie debut: 1985
Photo: Boston Marriage

I have beautiful memories of the old building, but I do not miss the old building. I love the new rehearsal rooms. I love that I can do a show on the black box, proscenium, and thrust stages. Although my memories are really rich from my times at the old building, the new building has quickly surpassed expectations.

It was thrilling to be on stage together with Joe Dowling in Faith Healer; to share a rehearsal process and run with him (he also directed it). It was one of my favorite directing experiences with him. I loved that show.

A constant in my life at the Guthrie is Sheila Livingston. Throughout Garland and Dowling, she’s been the person who has, for me, represented the Guthrie’s steadfast commitment to the community and art—to the building and how it relates to our community of students. I can’t tell you what an important person she’s been to the theater. You can’t overstate the case—she is the soul of the Guthrie. The über liaison. The face of the Guthrie—an ambassador that champions the cause. When I think of the Guthrie over the last 50 years, the constant is Sheila.


Guthrie debut: 1999
Photo: M. Butterfly

M. Butterfly is the biggest show I’ve done. It’s the kind of show that marks the peak of an acting career. The hardest time for the whole being naked thing was the first time, which was in rehearsal. The lights were horrible, everyone was right there close to me, there were windows overlooking the river. I told the stage managers, “It’s time.” All I could think about was that I was standing there naked—I don’t even know if I said my lines.

I feel like the audience is hugging you when you’re on the thrust stage—I love it. You connect with them better connection than on a proscenium. They’re all around and closer than you think. It’s a more 3D experience.

Major BarbaraSARAH AGNEW

Guthrie debut: 2003
Photo: Major Barbara

My first, and only, show on the thrust stage was As You Like It in 2004. I joke with Joe (Dowling) about that: “Are you trying to send me a message?” That was also the first show I was in that Joe directed. I played Audrey. We were rehearsing a scene at the end where Audrey goes to the bathroom on stage (she doesn’t know better, she’s a country bumpkin), so I squatted down off to the side on stage, not really thinking about it. Well, Joe put the kibosh on that. He was like, “No, no, no, that’s not the kind of show we’re doing.”

Caroline or ChangeGRETA OGLESBY

Guthrie debut: 2009
Photo: Caroline or Change

I went through four or five auditions for Caroline or Change. I’ve never auditioned that much in my life! I got a callback after my initial audition and had to prepare music for all the female roles. I’m a soprano, and I loved all the stuff the moon did. As I was rehearsing, my husband said to me, “Don’t go in there singing the moon stuff that well, or they’ll give you the moon.” I got to the callback and starting singing through everything and, sure enough, when I sang the moon part the music director said, “Greta you sang that so beautifully. If you could, please sing it again.” I told him, “Thank you, I will sing it again, but when I get to the Caroline song, I want you to have me sing that again, too.”

I played Peter’s (Michael Goetz) nurse in The Sunshine Boys. At one point in the scene, I’m sitting down working on some needlepoint and he throws a tongue compressor at me. One night, I felt it hit me, went to pick it up, but couldn’t find it. I didn’t think much of it, but as I got up to give him his pill the audience just started cracking up. I didn’t know why until all of a sudden I hear the thing hit the floor. Well, it had rested on my butt! I cracked up, Peter cracked up, and I just thought, “It’s live theater, what are you gonna do?”

Charley's AuntJOHN SKELLEY

Guthrie debut: 2008
Photo: Charlie’s Aunt

I christened the new stage with its first spew. I was Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and realized right before my first entrance that my stomach didn’t feel good. I got through it (a fight scene, of course) and barely made it backstage before throwing up. That’s about how the rest of the show went. I didn’t make it to curtain call that night.

During Charlie’s Aunt, there’s a scene where my character is supposed to dive into a dress. There are lots of layers and buttons and it’s just a difficult dress. One night I ended up twisting it inside out. It was all tangled, and the three of us could not for the life of us figure it out. We kept improvising and talking as we tried to fix it, and eventually I think I ended up just yelling, “Ahhhhhh!!!!” When I told a few people who’d seen it, they said, “That was hilarious! It should always be like that!” I was like, “No. It will never be like that again.”

Photos property of Guthrie Theater.