The Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater Opens in Minneapolis, MN – May 7, 1963

It may seem that the Guthrie Theater has been always with us.  And it is, indeed, a household name for theater goers in the Midwest. However, like so many accomplishments and achievements on the American landscape today, the Guthrie is a child of our 1960s period; and part of a construction and artistic boom in the United States that increased the number of regional theaters from 23 in 1961 to nearly 1800 by 2003.

The Guthrie Theater’s origins began in 1959 when Sir Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971), noted director, producer, and founding Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario from 1953-1956; along with Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler, expressed an ambition to bring professional theater to a location outside a major city like New York, where professional theater was more common.[i] According to author Jacob Marcott, the goal of establishing a theater like the Guthrie outside a major city was “to counteract the poor distribution of professional theaters across the world.” In September 1959, The New York Times printed an advertisement in its drama section requesting that cities respond if they wanted a regional theater presence in their area.[ii] The group received responses from seven cities: Waltham, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Minneapolis.[iii] Upon receiving their responses, Guthrie, Rea, and Zeisler chose Minneapolis as the Guthrie Theater’s eventual home after visiting all seven cities that showed interest.

From fundraising efforts to the design and construction of the theater, countless individuals poured work into the Guthrie during the three-and-a-half years between the time of the New York Times’ advertisement in 1959 to the theater’s first opening night on May 7, 1963.[iv] Architect Ralph Rapson (1914-2008), former dean of the University of Minnesota’s architecture school, designed the theater.[v] Known for his Modernist style architecture, Rapson designed several other buildings, including domestic and international structures such as U.S. embassies in Copenhagen and Stockholm, the 100 Memorial Drive Apartments (nee the Eastgate Apartments) in Massachusetts, and the Rarig Center for Performing Arts at the University of Minnesota.[vi] [

Note thrust stage. Photo: Minneapolis Tribune

According to New York Times author Robin Pogrebin, “Mr. Rapson’s 1963 Guthrie was admired for its innovations, including a thrusting stage and asymmetrical seating that made the audience seem like part of the dramatic action.”[vii]The thrust stage (a type of stage that extends into the audience) had seven sides, measured approximately 32 x 35 feet, and allowed room for 1,441 seats.[viii] Construction of the Guthrie was completed in 1963, and the theater’s first season launched with a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet directed by founder Sir Tyrone Guthrie, opened on May 7 that same year.[ix] Sir Tyrone Guthrie also served as the theater’s artistic director from its opening in 1963 to 1966, five years before his passing.

For the Guthrie Theater’s 50th anniversary in 2003, former artistic director Joseph Dowling gave a speech commemorating the Guthrie’s history.[x] Dowling acknowledged that although the Guthrie Theater was “widely regarded as the flagship of the American Regional Theater,” some of the original ideas for regional U.S. theater came from creators in Washington and Dallas. Dowling noted, however, that the Guthrie’s establishment differed from earlier U.S. regional theaters in that earlier regional theaters were mostly founded by younger artists. Guthrie, Rea, and Zeisler, after all, were experienced artists in the U.S. and Europe when they developed the idea for the Guthrie, allowing them to bring additional experience to the Guthrie from the time of its inception. The Guthrie’s early achievements earned it an important role in the American regional theater movement, which began in late 1961 after the Ford Foundation created a $9 million grant to promote regional theater in the U.S.[xi] Founding editor of American Theatre magazine, Jim O’Quinn, referred to the creation of the Guthrie as “the single event that became the most potent symbol of this simultaneous burgeoning and decentralization of the American theatre.” A selection of regional theaters established between 1962 and 1974 can be found at the end of this article.

At the time of Dowling’s speech, the last production in the 1963 Guthrie Theater had occurred seven years earlier.[xii] In fact, the last production in the 1963 theater was directed by Dowling himself, and was a production of the same play that had opened the Guthrie on May 7, 1963: Hamlet. The final performance on the 1963 Guthrie stage occurred May 7, 2006, exactly 43 years after the Guthrie opened. The 1963 theater was torn down later that year, while construction on a new Guthrie theater with additional space was wrapping up.[xiii] The new Guthrie Theater, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, still featured the design of the thrust stage from Rapson’s 1963 original to “[bridge] the distance between performers and theatergoers.”[xiv] The new Guthrie opened its first season not with Shakespeare, but with F. Scott Fitzgerald: a stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

The older theater no longer stands. After some consideration, it underwent demolished, and the site is now part green space, and part also of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The new theater continues to honor its original mission to bring professional theater to regional audiences to this day. The actors and actresses who grace its new stage also continue the annual tradition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (as below), performed every year to enchanted audiences since 1975.

SOME REGIONAL THEATERS ESTABLISHED 1962 – 1974 (with links to theaters below)

        1. Great Lakes Theater – Cleveland, OH (1962)
        2. Hartford Stage – Hartford, CT (1963)
        3. Goodspeed Musicals – East Haddam, CT (1963)
        4. The Guthrie Theater – Minneapolis, MN (1963)
        5. Seattle Repertory Theatre – Seattle, WA (1963)
        6. Trinity Repertory Company – Providence, RI (1963)
        7. Kansas City Repertory Theatre/Missouri Repertory Theatre – Kansas City, MO (1964)
        8. A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) – Seattle, WA (1965)
        9. Roundabout Theatre Company – New York, NY (1965)
        10. Marin Theatre Company – Mill Valley, CA (1966)
        11. Yale Repertory Theatre – New Haven, CT (1966)
        12. Morris A. Mechanic Theatre – Baltimore, MD (1967)
        13. Geva Theatre Center – Rochester, NY (1972)
        14. Indiana Repertory Theatre – Indianapolis, IN (1972)
        15. Manhattan Theatre Club – New York, NY (1972)
        16. Florida Studio Theatre – Sarasota, FL (1973)
        17. George Street Playhouse – New Brunswick, NJ (1974)
        18. Northlight Theatre – Skokie, IL (1974)
        19. Philadelphia Theatre Company – Philadelphia, PA (1974)
        20. Steppenwolf Theatre Company – Chicago, IL (1974)
        21. CANADA: The Globe Theater, Regina, Saskatchewan (1966)



[i] Jacob Marcott, 2019. “Guthrie Theater.” MNopedia. Edited by Minnesota Historial Society. July 8. Accessed November 2020.
[ii] Guthrie Theater. n.d. “A History of the Guthrie Theater.” Guthrie Theater. Accessed November 2020.; Marcott, Jacob. 2019. “Guthrie Theater.”
[iii] Guthrie Theater. n.d. “A History of the Guthrie Theater.”
[iv] Guthrie Theater. n.d. “A History of the Guthrie Theater.”
[v] Robin Pogrebin, 2008. “Ralph Rapson, Modernist Architect, Is Dead at 93.” The New York Times. April 3. Accessed November 2020.; Star Tribune. 2008. “Ralph E. Rapson.” Star Tribune. Accessed November 2020.
[vi] Pogrebin, 2008. “Ralph Rapson, Modernist Architect, Is Dead at 93.”; U.S. Modernist. n.d. “RALPH E. RAPSON, FAIA (1914-2008).” U.S. Modernist. Accessed November 2020.
[vii] Pogrebin, 2008. “Ralph Rapson, Modernist Architect, Is Dead at 93.”
[viii] Guthrie Theater. n.d. “A History of the Guthrie Theater.”;  Theatres Trust. n.d. “What are the types of theatre stages and auditoria?” Theatres Trust. Accessed November 2020.
[ix] Guthrie Theater. n.d. “A History of the Guthrie Theater.”
[x] Meet Minneapolis. n.d. “50 YEARS OF GUTHRIE: EXCLUSIVE SPEECH BY JOE DOWLING.” Meet Minneapolis. Accessed November 2020.
[xi] Jim O’Quinn, 2015. “Going National: How America’s Regional Theatre Movement Changed the Game.” Accessed November 2020.
[xii] Guthrie Theater. n.d. “A History of the Guthrie Theater.”
[xiii] Guthrie Theater. n.d. “Our Story.” Guthrie Theater. Accessed November 2020.; Pogrebin, Robin. 2008. “Ralph Rapson, Modernist Architect, Is Dead at 93.”
[xiv] Pogrebin, 2008. “Ralph Rapson, Modernist Architect, Is Dead at 93.”

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