Some occupations — police officers, firefighters, prince of Denmark — are loaded with day-to-day drama, and are easy topics for writers to use. Others are just intriguing to those on the outside or quite familiar to the author (think of all the plays about actors and all the books about writers writing books).
It’s safe to say that architects aren’t usually on that list.
Sure, they provide a valuable service and — at their best — create distinct, public art. As the subject of a play, however, architects rank somewhere around accountants on the excitement range. Unless, of course, there’s some disagreement between the architect and client, and the client happens to loom larger than life.
“Tyrone and Ralph” — opening this week at the History Theatre — looks closely at a collision of personalities and philosophies; a collision that shaped both the Twin Cities and regional theater movement. In it, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher looks at the contentious relationship between theater director Tyrone Guthrie and architect Ralph Rapson, who designed the Guthrie Theater.
The idea for the show came from Ron Peluso, the History Theatre’s artistic director and the director of the show.
“I drive by the old Guthrie every day on my way to work in St. Paul. The theater sparked regional theater movement and really created what we have now in the Twin Cities,” Peluso says. “I thought it would be interesting to bring those two together and look at how they fought like cats and dogs.”
Focusing on that conflict — and making the show a kind of Vaudeville double act — brought the idea alive for Hatcher. “It was exciting to look at how two men who really don’t like each other could create something like the Guthrie Theater,” Hatcher says.
“The play is not just about those two men, but also about how theater and art actually happen,” Peluso adds. “Jeff took those two bigger-than-life characters and put them together. It makes you examine what art and theater are. It’s not just a dry play about history.”
Though Hatcher notes the play is a fictionalization of the events, he did do considerable research, from speaking to surviving folks from the era (including Rapson, who was consulted on the show until his death earlier this year) and searching through the Guthrie Theater’s own archives.
“Ralph was at the reading that we did about a year ago. He said, ‘I seem like Tyrone’s straight man. Why don’t you punch up my lines?’ And I think Jeff has done that,” Ron says.
Whatever the antipathy between Guthrie and Rapson, there is no doubt that their creation had a profound effect. Not only did the Guthrie serve as a model for other regional theaters, but Rapson also went on to design numerous thrust stages across the country, including the History Theatre’s own space, Hatcher says.
“Tyrone and Ralph” had a quick rehearsal process, one that was complicated once Peluso was forced to have surgery following a tennis injury. The work was helped immeasurably by a pair of veteran actors — Steve Hendrickson as Guthrie and Mark Benninghofen as Rapson.
“In one week, we managed to work through the entire play. Now we have two weeks to refine it. My hope is that the director just doesn’t mess it up,” Peluso says.
What: “Tyrone and Ralph”
Who: History Theatre
Where: 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
When: Oct. 2-Nov. 2