Monday, February 04, 2008

On Demonizing Tyrone Guthrie

Last Wednesday, I wrote a post called "Betrayal of the Regional Theatre Movement -- The Guthrie," in which is posted a comparison of Margo Jones' passionate commitment to the production of new plays and development of contemporary playwrights with Guthrie's commitment to classics that were at least fifty years old. Obviously, I portrayed the latter as a betrayal. As Tony rightly pointed out, Guthrie cannot be blamed for all those Artistic Directors who have continued his policies to this day. We recreate reality every day by our behavior, and Guthrie only headed the theatre named after him for two short years and then he moved on.

To call Guthrie's policy a betrayal is perhaps too strong -- it implies a level of conscious dastardliness that is undeserved. It is important to remember -- and I should have pointed this out -- that when Guthrie was building that theatre, the American theatre was almost wholly committed to the production of new plays. In many ways, Guthrie's commitment to classics represented a rejection of mainstream theatrical practice, and was (at least to some extent) a revolutionary act. His artistic policy represented a turning point in the American theatre. Where previously there had been only a one way street, Guthrie created a crossroads where a variety of decisions could be made: all new plays (Broadway), a mix of new and classic (Margo Jones and those who followed her example in Houston and Washington DC), and all classics (Guthrie).

What tilted the scales was the enormous amount of media attention Guthrie received as compared to other such theatres. This attention came because he was a celebrity, as were Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and George Grizzard, and because his was not an "acorn" theatre that grew in small increments over a period of years, but rather was born a full-grown oak in a beautiful and unique multi-million dollar theatre. In short, the media hook was the glamor of the theatre, not in the artistic ideas or even in the plays that were produced. Without that glamor, the Guthrie would never have become the 900 lb-gorilla of the regional theatre movement, and there might be a better mix of artistic policies around.

But it did have that glamor, and it's example did become dominant, and once he had laid out that pathway it became much easier for everyone to simply follow along in the footsteps that he had blazed through the Minneapolis snow.

Today, Guthrie's model is dominant, and it is what needs to be revolted against in the same way that he revolted against the Broadway model.

5 comments:

The Director said...

I had a discussion about this in a bar the other night with the owner of a production company. One of his complaints is that we don't do enough new theatre, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I love the classics. That's why they're classic! They're timeless. But timeless doesn't mean we have to do them all the time.

I own close to 100 DVDs. I buy new ones on a regular basis (once a month, maybe?) and I go see movies in theaters about that often. But every once in awhile, I wanna sit back at home and watch a movie I've seen a thousand times (like, say, Disney's "The Emperor's New Groove" or "Shakespeare in Love"). In fact, just the other night, I watched a movie I haven't seen in years, and I had the best time, laughing my ass off at jokes I'd forgotten.

That's the way I see theatre. I want new plays, new experiences. I want to expand my horizons. But every once in awhile, I wanna sit back and relive the classics, the ones that I know are good, solid plays. Ones you can't screw up.

At nearly every theatre I've been to around here, I've seen classics. I've seen only a handful of plays written in the past twenty years. Actually, I haven't seen any. I performed in them.

There's a major lack of new plays playing out there, as theatres become classic-heavy. I'd like to see a 70/30 ratio of new-to-classic plays out there.. or at least a 50/50 balance.

Don't get me wrong -- I love the classics. But like you said in the MFA series of posts, we need to stop reliving the past so much and spend some time on the future.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Hi Scott,

Would the Guthrie be a rough equivalent to Canada's Shaw and Stratford Festivals (the latter of which has been dramatized in the TV series Slings and Arrows)?

Scott Walters said...

Ian -- Guthrie actually founded the Stratford Festival, I think, didn't he? And the Guthrie theatre is modeled on it with improvements that Guthrie learned from working there. I have had Sligs and Arrows recommended to me, and will have to re-up with Netflix and order it to watch. Anyway, yes, it is very much like those theatres.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Ahh. You're right. It looks as if Guthrie played a major role in developing Stratford:

http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Stratford%20Festival

Now I get it.

BTW. Slings and Arrows is a must. I rented the first season last weekend and watched all six episodes nearly back to back. Just scathing! And wonderful. I'm already on to season two! Do check it out if you get a chance.

Ian Mackenzie said...

Ahh. You're right. It looks as if Guthrie played a major role in developing Stratford:

http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Stratford%20Festival

Now I get it.

BTW. Slings and Arrows is a must. I rented the first season last weekend and watched all six episodes nearly back to back. Just scathing! And wonderful. I'm already on to season two! Do check it out if you get a chance.