Many of you no doubt already have heard the sad news that former Guthrie Artistic Director Liviu Ciulei died on Tuesday. “Former artistic director of the Guthrie” is a small and diminishing coterie, like “former presidents of the United States” and “men who walked on the moon”: There were seven artistic directors before Joe Dowling, all now deceased but for one. Did I say diminishing? I meant mostly gone, and that’s worth reflection.
I suppose my first Guthrie was the Guthrie of Michael Langham, the Bridgewater-born Englishman who helmed the theater from 1971 to 1977. My parents were theatergoers, and I am certain they brought me along every so often as a boy, but my memory for this is nonexistent. I regret it. When I was theater critic at City Pages, I spent a few hours every week poring over both the City Pages’ and Twin Cities Reader’s archives to get a sense of the history of local theater. I remember being quite struck by the sorts of plays produced under Langham. There were the popular favorites, of course: Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, and Shakespeare, always Shakespeare, who no doubt spends a measurable quantity of time in the afterlife wondering how the hell he wound up in Minnesota and why he is expected to return so often.
But between those favorites were startling choices. Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” a play telling of a daisy chain of sexual indiscretions that was widely condemned as pornography when it first appeared in 1900. There was also Ghelderode’s “Pantagleize,” a farce about a flibbertygibbet who accidentally sparks a revolution. And, oh my goodness, under Langham the Guthrie produced “Loot,” Joe Orton’s wildly anarchic farce about a body, stolen money, and the church. The Guthrie had a lovely tradition then of composing long advertisements that explained the plays in a way that made them sound like the most exciting things on earth. I actually read “Pantagleize” because the description in the old ad so excited me. And it was worth it — it was great. I would have liked to have seen these productions, but even if my parents might have taken me to “A Christmas Carol” or something similar, they probably weren’t dragging me along to Orton, and, at age 8, I may not have appreciated it.
For two years, between 1978 and 1980, the Guthrie had Alvin Epstein, the Etienne Decroux-trained actor and director who may have been Minnesota’s first extended contact with the sort of mime-based physical theater that the Theatre de la Jeune Lune would later popularize. Epstein is the lone ex-Guthrie artistic director who is still alive, and still proudly lists his two years heading the Guthrie at the top of his biographies. I have often wondered why his tenure was so brief — three seasons. But three seasons isn’t really so brief; Tyrone Guthrie himself only had four. His immediate successor, a Glaswegian actor and student of Guthrie’s named Douglas Campbell, had two. But perhaps it seems short because the men who followed Epstein had such long runs, starting with Liviu Ciulei, who was artistic director for five seasons.
It was Ciulei’s Guthrie that I first remember, particularly as a result of a production from the 1985-86 season called “Execution of Justice.” The play was both written and directed by Emily Mann, and I had read it before seeing it, and was excited by the staging. The play told the tale of Dan White’s killing of San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. The play was structured, loosely, as though it were a trial — White’s defense was a notorious one, in that his defense attorneys argued that White was addicted to sugar and it had rendered him, effectively, legally insane — this was dubbed the “Twinkie Defense.” But the play was sort of free form, effectively capturing the wildly varying voices of San Francisco at the time, from gay activists and homophobes. It also included Dan White’s actual voice, in the form of his testimony at his own defense, which is almost incomprehensible. Because of the play’s courtroom-like structure, 12 audience members were placed on the stage, as though they were jurors. I was one of those 12 the night I saw it, which was both thrilling and a little frustrating, as I saw the whole play from behind. Later, when I started doing my own plays, I would often see them from backstage, and it’s come to be my favorite way to see a play.
The next year Garland Wright took over, and I long considered Wright to be my Guthrie artistic director, in the sense that when I thought of the Guthrie, I thought of Wright’s Guthrie. I realize this is a bit unfair to Joe Dowling. I have, in fact, seen far more plays at Dowling’s Guthrie that I ever did at Wright’s, and I have no doubt that much of this was informed by nostalgia, which is always a tricky proposition. In fact, I can identify the exact moment when, for me, the Guthrie became Wright’s Guthrie in my head: It was 1989, at a production of Jean Genet’s sprawling “The Screens,” directed by Joan Ackalitis. The play is set during France’s war with Algeria, involves 50 characters, and takes five or more hours to perform. Over the course of the play, many of its characters get killed, and Ackalitis had the brilliant idea to string a trapeze artist’s safety net from the ceiling. As characters lost their lives during the play, they appeared in the net above the audience, and remained there for the rest of the production, as ghostly witnesses. It was the second play I ever attended as a critic.
I spent the next 10 years writing unproducable, 5-hour-long plays with 50 characters, and I know I was not alone to have walked out of this show transformed by it. I interviewed a terrific local playwright named Kira Obolensky some years ago, and she told me that she walked out of that play and immediately enrolled in a playwrighting class at the Playwright’s Center. Kevin Kling has told me that the production likewise had a huge influence on him. I have worked for much of my professional life with a director named Rob Urbinati, who was then studying theater in Nebraska and drove up to Minneapolis multiple times to see “The Screens.” I have long seen it as an epochal event in Twin Cities theater, and suspect if I continued scratching about, I would keep digging up people who went into the play one sort of person and came out another.
But all generations have their own epochal moments. I feel sure that the artistic directors who preceded Wright had theirs — I think if I had been an adult during Langham’s tenure, I would probably have spent years writing brooding, European-styled comedies, and I can state for a fact that I have borrowed from Emily Mann’s “Execution of Justice” as much as I ever borrowed from “The Screens.” I am curious as to what the generation after me will see as Dowling’s epochal event. I would like to imagine it being the recent production of “H.M.S. Pinafore,” with its “Carry On”-style bawdiness and 1970s television variety-show soundtrack. I could see a million productions like that. But each generation has its own theatrical nostalgia, and I don’t get to pick it for them.