The Time Has Come to Build a National Theatre Center
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy reminded us with these words:
“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of our artists. If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him…Art is not a form of propaganda, it is a form of truth…Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment.”
When President Kennedy spoke these words, the world was a much different place than it is today. There’s no question things have changed, but much has stayed the same. What certainly hasn’t changed in almost fifty years is we still don’t have a National Theatre Center “a place for our theater artists” or a National Touring Company or a National Repertory Acting Company.
There’s no question we have among our nation the most talented actors, playwrights, directors, and other theatre artists – on Broadway, Off-Broadway, at regional theaters, community theatres, in films, on television, in commercials, on cruise ships, many different kinds of venues, and in many admirable, courageous theatres, dedicated to the highest aspirations of making theatre. We have very successful theatres on Broadway, cultural centers producing entertaining shows, drama, music, dance, opera, screening films, holding discussions and talks, conferences, festivals… Everything that fuels a culture conscious country. And it’s a struggle.
So why consider building a National Theatre Center today at this time?
Well, before we go any further – we have to know a little about a very serious attempt over a hundred years ago in New York City.
In 1903, Joseph Jefferson (the Tom Hanks of his day), made a speech at the Garrick Theatre for the furtherance of the idea for an American National Art Theatre. The audience almost filled the body of the theatre. Many well-known theatrical managers and actors and actresses, and the great actress of France, Sarah Bernhardt also spoke that year at The Players Club, calling for a “National Art Theatre.”
And in 1909, a theatre was built at the corner of 63rd Street and Central Park West. Called The New Theatre, Underwritten by leading New York citizens, including J. P. Morgan and Otto Kahn, and designed by Carrère and Hastings, the theatre was opened with the hope that it would provide a home for a permanent repertory company offering the greatest in classics and new plays. The structure, designed in the Italian Renaissance style, seated twenty five hundred and boasted a second theatre on the rooftop, a large orchestra pit, twin grand staircases, and a revolving stage run by electric power. The first attraction was Anthony and Cleopatra, with E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe in the title roles. But what was the public seeing – what they could see on The Great White Way and it was less expensive there and easier to bet to – who wanted to go all the way up to 63rd Street in 1909.
It was extremely expensive and it was poorly attended that they quickly abandoned their repertory plans. For a time the theatre was called the Century and served to house sumptuous Ziegfeld and Dillingham musicals, and later was used by Max Reinhardt for his gigantic mountings. The theatre was demolished in 1930 and replaced by luxury apartments.
So obviously A National Art Theatre for America” cannot simply present the popular actors and plays of the day.
We look around the world and we see over 30 nations which have an institution which they refer to as a National Theatre or a National Theatre Center.
Among them: Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, El Salvador, England, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Serbia, Slovenia, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda
So for them it is obviously important – not so in this country?
Well why not? But before we even get to why we need it.
What it would mean for us?
What would our National Theatre Center be?
In London, it took them a long time to build their National Theatre – hundreds of years. And when the cornerstone was laid in 1938 George Bernard Shaw shared some of his thoughts:
The Unfelt Want
To the Editor of "The Daily Telegraph and Morning Post"
People ask me "Do the English people want a National Theatre?" Of course they do not. They never want anything.
They have a BritishMuseum; but they never wanted it. They have Westminster Abbey. They never wanted that either; but now that it stands there, a mysterious phenomenon that came to them they don't know how, and don't care, they quite approve of it, and feel the place would be incomplete without it. What we have to do is to produce the phenomenon of a National Theatre on the site that has been acquired at South Kensington, London.
We have not only got the site, but we have paid for it; and we are not yet at the end of our resources. The first thing we have to do, in order to fill this site worthily, is to find an architect, and we have found one in the person of Sir Edwin Lutyens.
He will find this site a very appropriate field for his efforts, because most of what the 19th century was able to do for London in the way of public buildings was done in South Kensington. You have the Natural HistoryMuseum, Waterhouse's masterpiece; but it is really 13th century architecture. You have the Albert Hall. What sort of architecture that is no human being has been able to say; but at any rate there is. You have the building which replaces what used to be called Brompton Boilers. And now you have the church of the Oratorians. Now I think we may depend on Sir Edwin Lutyens not to go back to the 13th century, but to give us something belonging to our own time.
Although, as I have said, the site is paid for, we cannot really afford it; but we can go ahead for some distance, far enough to oblige the Government who will have to come and help to keep on foot an indispensable national institution when we have solidly founded it.
The way the National Gallery, the British Museum, and all these places begin is always by a small group of people who understand their national cultural importance. They make a beginning, and after a time the beginning becomes an institution. Then the government comes along, or rather the Government does not come along, but the created institution confronts the Government; and the Government which never wanted it, says, "Here is something which for some reason or other we have got to keep going."
Now we have to carry this institution to the point at which the Cabinet will be up against it. I remember the year 1922, which was when we were on very good terms with our neighbors the French, the third centenary of the birth of Molière, the great French dramatist, who stands in France as Shakespeare does here. For the sake of the Entente Cordiale we were expected to celebrate it. The business fell, in due course, into the hands of the Foreign Office.
When the heads of the Foreign Office heard that we had to celebrate Molière, they naturally said, "What or who is Molière?" and nobody could answer the question until a young attaché - perhaps it was Sir Robert Vansittart - said, "My governor has a library of which he is very proud, and there is a row of books in it called 'The Works of Molière'." The Foreign Office said "Ah! Works. Good! This is one for the Commissioner of Works."
Accordingly, the First Commissioner of Works took the thing in hand. By an extraordinary piece of good luck the Commissioner at that time was Lord Crawford, who with some three or four other peers - Lord Lytton and Lord Howard de Walden among them - represented culture in the House of Lords.
G. BERNARD SHAW
London, S.W.1, June 8, 1939.
Now he had been instrumental in helping to publish a booklet by Harley Granville Barker and William Archer called A NATIONAL THEATRE SCHEME AND ESTIMATES. They had written it in 1903-1904 and it was published in 1907 and it called for a National Theatre.
They asked: What are the obstacles to the establishment of a National Theatre Center?
They brought what it would take to make an endowed theatre: The creation, organization and management of a National Theatre Center, but that it would not be a cure for all that is amiss in our theatrical life. He wrote:
“Moreover the National Theatre must be its own advertisement – must impose itself on public notice, not by posters and column advertisements in the newspapers, but by th3e very fact of its ample, dignified and liberal existence…It must not even have the air of appealing to a specially literary and cultured class. It must be visibly and unmistakably a popular institution, making a large appeal to the whole community. It would become the property of the Nation. In as much as this country possesses a national drama, it would be housed in its national theatre. There never was and there never will be an ideal theatre. There is no magical recipe no instant and miraculous cure for all the shortcomings of our theatrical life but it is merely a plan for an institution which being based on sound artistic principles may develop far beyond immediate probabilities or possibilities and may give a healthy impulse to theatrical progress throughout the English speaking world.”
Among the ideas discussed in the book are:
Theatre would be a free gift to the nation, represented by a Board of Trustees. A theatre which appeals to a very narrow public cannot be a National Theatre in any true sense of the word.
Three things must be provided:
The site, the building, the Guarantee Fund.
A fixed salary for three years.
A Dramatic Training School would be an indispensable adjunct to a National Theatre.
Here’s what Tony Randall said about his theatre when it was in action:
National Actors Theatre:
America’s Classical Repertory Company
by Tony Randall
Tony Randall, Founder and Artistic
Director of National Actors Theatre
We have developed an audience that understands and wants the best in art: more than a million people visited the Museum of Modern Art’s great Picasso exhibit several years ago. Yet, despite this explosion of an arts audience, we are simultaneously seeing the frightening shrinking of the theatre. The United States today has no classical repertory theatre. What does it matter? Is the history of theatre so important? Does the American public really miss an exposure to classical theatre and the performances of our leading actors and actresses in classical roles?
Of the time I’ve spent in theatres, on either side of the footlights, I can’t remember a more moving experience than seeing Britain’s National Theatre play Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. It was an indescribably thrilling and touching experience, with a cast that included Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Joan Plowright and Rosemary Harris. Yet even more thrilling was that only two nights before, I had seen Olivier play Othello with Maggie Smith. This was theatre! Fantastic artists working together, performing treasures of our inheritance for a glorious cause: a new National Theatre to bring the best to their people and to the world… a theatre for which England has waited many lifetimes.
And this success quickly spawned another: one year after the founding of the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare had come to the U.S. thirty-five times. We go crazy for it, and walk out after performances saying and thinking what a shame it is that we don’t have something comparable of our own.
This sentiment is not unique to people in New York and Los Angeles, nor even just to people involved with theatre. It is a growing awareness of the importance and value of our world’s culture everywhere across the country.
Every civilized country but ours has a classical repertory theatre which is the pride of its nation. France has the Comedie Française, founded by Louis XIV for Molière 400 years ago; Israel, the Habima; Japan, the Kabuki; Ireland, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; Russia has the Moscow Art Theatre, and the list goes on. Yet the United States has none. This, in my opinion, is not only a crime, but a scandal. The serious play has become an exotic rarity on Broadway and prices exclude most New Yorkers, not to mention many visitors to the city. Why has this happened? Certainly, the idea of supportingthe arts has entered the American consciousness: the idea that individuals and corporations have a responsibility to improve the quality of life in their communities, an investment from which all benefit.
Theatre has not been thought of as one of the arts: it is show business; it is commercial; it brings about a billion dollars a year into the city’s economy. We have a great challenge before us. We must change our thinking about theatre, and think of it as an art, not only as a commercial venture. The dramatic literature from every country, beginning with Greece, is our heritage. It is not to be read; it is to be seen on stage. Most Americans know little of it. This is our challenge, our duty, and our mission in life – to bring live theatre to our city and country at a price which families can afford.
It has been my dream and ambition to be a classical actor since the day I left for Northwestern University. I trained for it, as many actors have done, learning the articulation and other classical stage techniques that are undervalued in American theatre. We have envied the similarly trained British actors who have classical theatre to go into, if that is what they want. We commiserate with each other, and bemoan the fact that we do not have a classical theatre to allow us to develop into Oliviers and Gielguds and Redgraves. Oddly, we once did have it; the nineteenth century was a time of Shakespearean giants in America: Edwin Forrest, the Booths, father and son, James O’Neill, Richard Mansfield and others.
When I founded the National Actors Theatre in 1991, we searched for a theatre in the heart of New York’s theatre district that would accommodate us. With the help of the Shubert Organization, we found a home at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street. Since then, we have mounted fifteen productions with works by leading playwrights such as Shakespeare, Gogol, Odets, Miller, Ibsen, Sheridan and Shaw, to name a few, and with highly regarded actors like Brian Bedford, Julie Harris, George C. Scott, Charles Durning, Ethan Hawke, Lynn Redgrave, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach, among others.
This past January, two-time Tony award winner Matthew Broderick and noted English actress Judy Parfitt starred in Emlyn Williams’s classic thriller Night Must Fall, written in 1935. The New York Times called it "an utterly disarming revival… a surprisingly delicate and compelling treatment." And before that, Jack Klugman and I starred in the revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, which first opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in October of 1997, where we played for four weeks before opening to rave reviews on Broadway.
Julie Harris and Charles Durning in
The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn, directed by Charles
Nelson Reilly at New York’s Lyceum Theatre
Photo: Carol Rosegg © 1997
Increasingly, NAT productions take on lives of their own, not just on Broadway but before and after their New York run. For instance, our production of D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game starring five-time Tony award winner Julie Harris and Charles Durning ran on Broadway for seven months before beginning a six-month national tour of Chicago, California, Washington D.C., Fort Lauderdale, and a gala closing performance recently in Boston. In addition, Jack Klugman and I just finished a four-week run of The Sunshine Boys in Fort Worth, Texas.
I continue to work with the administrative staff and Board of Directors to gain recognition and support for a theatre company dedicated to producing classic works, namely National Actors Theatre. In addition, we also have an excellent "High School Outreach Program" for the students in New York City public schools, the highlight of which is the students’ attendance at special matinee performances of every NAT production. The students’ experience is enhanced by preparatory and follow-up in-class workshops conducted by our professional teaching artists, supplemented by comprehensive curriculum guides for teachers. At the end of each matinee students have the rare opportunity for a question and answer session with me and the cast.
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in the National Actors Theatre production of Neil Simon’s
The Sunshine Boys,
directed by John Tillinger.
Photo: Joan Marcus © 1997
As a result of running programs in the high schools we observed that students with an expressed interest in the performing arts failed to see the need to develop well-rounded academic skills. Consequently, in 1996, we developed "Staging the Basics," an innovative interdisciplinary method of presenting the practical applications of the high school core curriculum, through the exercise of producing a play. We also offer ten dollar student tickets to every performance through our "Tomorrow’s Audience" program, and we continue to work with area teachers and the New York Board of Education to develop other theatre-related education programs.
In our past eight seasons, the Theatre has distinguished itself in significant ways by successfully challenging Broadway’s commercial tradition and presenting classic works of theatre rather than producing more financially rewarding new plays. We believe that the American theatre should be accessible and relevant to the public. Through extensive outreach and education programs, we strive to bring a new audience into the theatre and to develop their appreciation for the classics.”
The Guthrie Theatre’s Artistic Director Joe Dowling has written:
Another more important possibility opened up with the emergence of the Guthrie Theater: the possibility that from the regional theatre might come a National Theatre for America. Before the Guthrie there had been scant justification for such an idea. The Guthrie was the first regional theatre that looked as if it could conceivably develop into the realization of this long cherished dream. —Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage, Joseph Wesley Zeigler (1977)
“While brave pioneers such as Margo Jones in Dallas and Zelda Fichandler in Washington, D.C., led the way in creating a regional theatre movement in the United States from as early as the late 1940s, the involvement of a giant figure like Tyrone Guthrie gave the Minneapolis theatre an importance that other theatres could not match when it opened in May 1963. The Minnesota theatre soon became the flagship of a burgeoning movement and instantly gained a national reputation. Of course, the Guthrie Theater never became a “National Theatre for America.” There are geographical, cultural and historic reasons why the U.S. has not had a single National Theatre, and it was an impossible burden to place on the shoulders of a new theatre. Indeed, Guthrie himself recognized the reality and suggested in his 1965 book A New Theatre that the Guthrie set its sights on humbler aims:
We are there to offer a selection of plays of proven worth, performed at the best standard which we can achieve.
It was always intended as a theatre to serve its local community. Not previously noted for their devotion to theatre, Minneapolis community leaders had persuaded the dynamic trio of Tyrone Guthrie, Oliver Rea and Peter Zeisler to create their repertory company in the land of 10,000 lakes. From the start, there was considerable local pride, and the community had great affection for what was dubbed “the miracle in Minnesota.” That sense of engagement has remained solid to this day. On more than one occasion, the Guthrie has been in dire financial straits, only to be saved by the generosity of individual board members. No matter how choppy the waters became, successive boards have recognized the importance of the theatre to the economic and cultural life of the region and have refused to allow it to disappear.
Each artistic director since Tyrone Guthrie has had freedom to create his own program without fear or favor. In the ’70s, Michael Langham gave the theatre a succession of brilliantly conceived classic productions that indeed pleased the masses. Liviu Ciulei, who had recently arrived from Romania, made the ’80s a time of experiment and fresh thinking. Garland Wright, a brilliant and caring director, laid the foundation for much of the expansion and growth that has been possible in recent years.
When I became artistic director in 1995, the theatre was going through one of those cyclical periods of unease and doubt that affect most artistic institutions from time to time. As Ed Martenson, then executive director, put it, “The audience is out of sorts with us—they seem angry for some reason.” Some of Garland’s choices had been badly received, the press had become venomous—one reviewer describing a production as “shit”—and, most significantly, subscription numbers were falling. From a record high of 26,000 in 1990, almost 50 percent had withdrawn by early 1995.
Examining the previous decade’s programming, one thing became abundantly clear. The decline in public support was not a result of a lack of ambition or artistic innovation. Garland Wright had widened the repertoire to include new work; he brought diversity to the acting company; he introduced some exciting and fresh directors and had opened the Guthrie Lab in an old downtown warehouse, where young artists could grow without the soul-destroying tyranny of press scrutiny. Side by side with innovation, Garland had also produced and directed some legendary productions of the classics, the highlight being his epic version of Shakespeare’s History Plays in 1990.
I began an exhaustive round of speaking engagements with every possible group that would listen to me. The theatregoing community made it clear that, despite this carefully balanced program, they felt alienated from the Guthrie and saw it as a distant, elitist organization out of touch with their needs and tastes. A meeting with some significant donors confirmed this view and reinforced a need for fresh thinking. Of course the press howled “populist” and “crowd pleaser” when I announced my first season aimed at restoring the appeal of the repertoire. Taking Guthrie’s own advice about “good plays well done,” I presented a familiar list of writers, including Shakespeare, Ibsen, Miller, Friel and Goldsmith. Side by side with this audience-friendly package, we transformed the Guthrie Lab into a second public space where new work by Sam Shepard, Femi Ossifan and Manuel Puig could play to a smaller audience. Over the years, that raw space became vital for new work and influenced much of our thinking about the necessary repertoire for the Guthrie.
The 1996-97 season proved the most successful in many years, and in subsequent seasons, working closely with a brilliantly creative managing director, David Hawkanson, and a dedicated and energized staff, we eliminated the accumulated deficit and doubled our subscription base, bringing it to over 30,000. The success of the Guthrie Lab proved the need for a second auditorium. The signature thrust stage of the Guthrie is a unique and dynamic theatrical space. However, its weakness is that it was designed specifically to house classics written before the middle of the 17th century. While the energy and the dynamism of a stage where the audience sits on three sides is clear in epic productions from any era, it is less satisfactory when staging more naturalistic plays from the end of the 19th and all the 20th century. As this includes most of the great American repertoire, the Guthrie could either change or become a theatre increasingly marginalized by its architecture.
Shakespeare has always been at the center of the Guthrie repertoire. Since the opening in 1963 of Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Hamlet, starring George Grizzard and Jessica Tandy, audiences have come to admire the flexibility of the thrust stage in the telling of Shakespeare’s great stories. The fluidity of movement, the immediacy and intimacy of the staging and the direct address to audiences make the Guthrie stage the ideal place to see and to perform Shakespeare. As it was never the intention to change that aspect of our mission, it was clear that any future development must include the signature thrust stage. It seemed logical that a second theatre should have the more conventional proscenium arch stage. With both stages at our disposal, it would be possible to continue an artistically adventurous policy while ensuring that the theatre could attract a wide audience with popular plays and, one hoped, avoid the damaging deficits that had plagued previous years.
The idea of including a studio space within the new complex was the result of our commitment to training young actors. Shortly after my arrival, I invited Kenneth Washington, then a professor of drama at the University of Utah, to head up a new department at the Guthrie. He became director of company development and, in a short time, transformed our training programs. Ken introduced a new summer program “A Guthrie Experience for Actors in Training,” which brings student actors from theatre programs around the country to Minneapolis. Throughout the summer, along with regular classes and performance, they have a chance to experience the life of an active theatre. Many have returned as company members after graduation, and all have a deeper appreciation of the life of a regional theatre. It is our hope that many of them will find satisfaction working in live theatre rather than decamping immediately to either coast awaiting the big break in movies or television. Working with the Department of Drama and Dance at the University of Minnesota, we also began a BFA program in classical acting that continues to be a fertile recruiting ground for our productions and for other theatres around the state. We decided that, in an ideal world, a studio space would house the work of both these programs as well as introduce important local companies and new work.
So, in contemplating the potential opportunities and weighing up the dangers of doing nothing, I concluded that the time had come for the Guthrie Theater to take bold steps to ensure its future and to claim once again its place as a leader in American theatre. We would have three theatres in a single complex. We would bring our production departments and our administration, scattered around the city, under the same roof. We would become a “national center for theatre arts and theater education.” The new theatre would include:
- A thrust stage, where our classical work, particularly Shakespeare, would be seen to advantage;
- A new proscenium stage, where we could explore 20th- and 21st-century drama more effectively and introduce new work to our audience;
- A studio or black-box theatre where young artists would have the opportunity to grow and develop.
In 1998, I wrote a white paper for our board outlining the comprehensive nature of our ambitions. Given their unanimous approval, David Hawkanson and I began to lead our board and staff on the hazardous journey that has eventually led to the creation of a new theatre complex on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.
The first step on that journey was the appointment of an architect. A subcommittee of the board was set up to select a suitable candidate and it was quickly determined that, as well as establishing a theatre that functioned well, we should create an architectural icon that would draw national and international attention to our city and state. We chose to explore the work of five major world architects whose portfolios fitted our needs. All of them had experience designing and building performing arts facilities.
And so a small group of community leaders, accompanied by Hawkanson and myself, set off to talk to the architects and see the buildings. We visited Mexico City, Rotterdam, Paris, Lyons, Lucerne, New York, Philadelphia and several other American cities. It was a fascinating process, introducing us to the extraordinary work of some truly inspiring artists. The final selection of French architect Jean Nouvel was unanimous and enthusiastic.
What impressed us most about Nouvel’s work was the combination of playfulness, surprise and functionality he showed in each of his buildings. His originality and artistic genius were proven by the Cartier Museum in Paris, with its enormous tree behind the glass structure, the array of camera irises combining into a carpet-like wall on the exterior of the Institut Arab Monde, and the framing of the views in the concert hall in Lucerne. However, the building that sealed my deciding vote was the Opera House in Lyons. There, Nouvel had taken a 19th-century building whose exterior could not be altered and had transformed it to create a wholly new theatre. The auditorium was beautifully understated, the lobbies magnificent and rich in color; but the crowning glory was the backstage area where rehearsal rooms on the roof offered the artists a spectacular view of the city and a sense of beauty to prepare their work. This was clearly our man!
With Jean Nouvel on board and a capital campaign underway, our next task was to persuade the Minnesota Legislature to back the project by including it in the bi-annual bonding bill then working its way through a stormy session. The overall cost of the building that Nouvel proposed was $125 million, and we hoped, from experience, that our philanthropic community would be enormously generous. Our hopes were indeed realized. At present, our campaign stands at $86 million and rising. But for the theatre to be truly seen as a Minnesota institution, we needed public funding to complement the private contributions. There was little precedent for state capital funding of an arts organization, and most people gave us no chance of success. The recently elected wrestler-turned-governor, Jesse Ventura, was loudly insistent that no arts project was worthy of state support. “If I give money to a theatre, why not support Stock Car Racing,” he famously growled. We recognized that we had a fight on our hands and would need all the support we could muster from around the state.
From its earliest years, the Guthrie had established a special bond with Greater Minnesota. Through our educational work, we had links with every school district in the state. In any given year, more than 125,000 students and teachers attend a Guthrie production, coming from all corners of the state and beyond. In 2000, we revived a touring program with a highly popular production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Subsequent tours strengthened the relationship between the Guthrie and its region. So when we needed advocacy for our project, we called on the thousands of people who had come to see our work in Mankato, Rochester, Duluth and many other cities and towns throughout the state. A dedicated group of staff members, led by James LL Morrison and Beth Burns, conducted an extensive campaign to ensure that legislators of both parties knew of the widespread support we had at grassroots level. Thousands of e-mails, phone messages and letters flooded into the Capitol. On one occasion, a beleaguered Senator begged us to call off the e-mail dogs as his mailbox was becoming clogged with Guthrie supporters. People traveled for miles to give testimony at legislative hearings. The Guthrie was a hot topic of conversation throughout the media.
Following a monumental political battle over three years—including three vetoes from Ventura—we prevailed: both the House and the Senate voted $25 million in bonds for the creation of the new theatre. The new governor, Tim Pawlenty, signed the bill, and in September 2003 we broke ground for our new three-theatre complex that included three rehearsal rooms, four classrooms, extended scenery and costume shops together with spectacular audience amenities.
The genius of Nouvel’s design was his recognition that the theateres needed to be some 50 feet in the air. This was necessary to take advantage of the site with sweeping views of the Mississippi and of the powerful St. Anthony Falls situated at the exact place where the city was founded. He also proposed a large cantilevered lobby stretching 175 feet from the building where audiences can experience a unique sensation of being above the flow of the river. The studio is at the top of the building, and there Nouvel has created another cantilevered lobby offering unique views of both the river and downtown. These public spaces will be used all day as meeting places to attract casual visitors as well as theatregoers. The theatres themselves are equipped with state of the art technology and are a model of efficiency and traffic flow in their backstage areas—well, as efficient as any theatres positioned 50 feet in the air can be!
The self-designation “a national center for theatre art and education” helps us to articulate the extent of our ambition. With no desire or possibility of becoming a “National Theatre,” we do see the potential of developing our work so that it continues to have wide local support as well as attracting national attention. We will have a chance, through co-productions and visiting companies, to extend our relations with theatres around the country. Through our WORLD Stage program we have already created relationships with important international artists and companies. We plan to continue to develop that aspect of our work.
The strengths of the Guthrie Theater are its seminal place in the history of American regional theatre, its focus on the reinterpretation of the classics and a highly committed audience and donor base. Now, with a proscenium stage to complement the signature thrust stage, it will be possible for us to expand the repertoire to include more contemporary writing and new plays from major American writers. Already, under the leadership of Michael Bigelow Dixon, our literary department has commissioned a number of plays and we have presented 10 world premieres in the last 5 years, including award-winning plays from Arthur Miller and Lee Blessing. New writing is the lifeblood of a vibrant theatre, and finally the Guthrie Theater can play an important part in creating a new body of American literature.
The people of Minnesota have made a huge investment in the future of the Guthrie Theater and in the vision we have articulated. This is an ambitious program inspired by the successes of the past but conscious of the need to grow so that the experiment created in the early ’60s will thrive and prosper in the new millennium. Future generations of actors, directors and writers will work in expanded and beautiful conditions. The spectacular audience facilities combined with the iconic architecture created by Jean Nouvel will ensure that Minneapolis is a cultural destination to rival major cities of the world.
The reinvention of the Guthrie has stretched our organization in ways that we could never have imagined when we began the process over eight years ago. However, it has also strengthened our determination to grow and develop the art form that we all love and serve. The success of our campaign to build a new theatre confirms my belief in the power of theatre to move not only the individual, who sees the mirror held up to nature, but a whole community in pursuit of a shared ideal. Those of us lucky enough to be a part of this remarkable enterprise are very conscious that we must not fail those hopes and ambitions. Wish us luck!”
How did the founding fathers (and mothers) of this country start with the idea for a National Theatre in Washington, D.C.?
When this country laid out its nation’s capital, the architect, Pierre L'Enfant included as he put it: “a Church "intended for national purposes" of a semi-religious nature, and along the Grand Avenue connecting the "Congressional house," the three "grand Departments of State" and the "Presidential Palace" would be the "the play houses, rooms of assembly, academies and all such sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle."
In 1800,when the six Executive Departments of the Federal Government moved from New York City to Washington, naturally they felt there should be a theater – and one opened called the United States Theater, built into Samuel Blodgett's Great Hotel. It thrived but it was considered this country’s national Theater but in 1835 – a theatre did open it was called the National Theater, a commercial enterprise, opened on the same site it now occupies to this day. But the government realized it still didn’t have a large enough theatre or a large public Hall, even with a theatre called the National Theatre, Now in 1883, they built a big Hall, but no theatre. So they build another one in 1923. In 1929 the Daughters of the American Revolution built a Hall in 1929. Well, the Great Depression happens, and The Group Theatre was founded in 1931 and we can certainly talk more about what they stood for and fought for – but they didn’t set themselves up as our National Theatre although eventually many called them America’s greatest acting company and there’s no question they were.
We still need to look at what Eleanor Roosevelt did in 1933. She turned to Eva Le Gallienne, who had founded and was the Artistic Director of the Civic Repertory Theatre and asked her to come up with a plan to give to President Roosevelt to help with the unemployed actors and actresses, to use the Emergency Relief and Civil Works Administration. However, the theatre wasn’t established but The Federal Theatre was. There is a great deal of history attached to it. Some say it was possibly a National Theatre at the time. And one particular night the same play opened in all those cities in theaters on the same exact night! An amazing feat!! Was that the closest we came to a National Theatre movement?? The U.S. government gave money to fund such an experiment and shut it down and cut off funding to censure the productions because they were becoming too controversial and political.
In the 1930’s Congressional hearings were held about establishing a Department of Science, Art and Literature and in the middle of all of that was discussed the idea for National Theatre. A Department of Science, Art and Literature…?
During the discussions, the bill now suggested constructing a building which would include a theatre for symphony music, another for drama, another for childrens theatre, and another for grand opera. However, in 1935, when the Public Works Administration asked for 8 million dollars they didn’t receive the money.
Three years later, Congress passed a resolution calling for the construction "of a public building which shall be known as the National Cultural Center," but this wasn’t built. The first War Memorial Building had been constructed in 1883 and another War Memorial Building Citizen's Committee was formed in 1945 but a resultant bill died in Congress without hearings. In 1948, there was a meeting in the Auditorium of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to formulate plans for the development of a Federally supported National Theater. On June 1, 1950 George Jessel announced that President Harry S. Truman was supporting his plan to raise $3 million for an integrated theater owned by the Federal Government. But this theater was never built.
That same year, the idea of a theater as a national memorial to a president was raised when Rep. Arthur G. Klein (D. N.Y) introduced a bill on August 14, to authorize $5 million for planning and construction of a Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial Theater to be built on public land under the control of the National Capital Parks. Although the theater as a national memorial to President Roosevelt was not built, the impetus toward a national theater continued when bills in 1953 were introduced for a National War Memorial Theater and Opera House to be built and backed by federal funds. In 1954, a bill was introduced to create an American National War Memorial Arts Commission in Washington, create a commission to encourage the arts throughout the country, and provide Federal grants to states to develop state arts programs and projects. The beginnings of the NEA and what would become Kennedy Center.
More hearings in 1955, and Clarence Derwent, President of the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), Robert W. Dowling, Chairman of the Board of ANTA, spoke to Congress to build the proposed national cultural center. That year Eisenhower appointed seven nominees Vice President Richard Nixon Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. This 21 member commission was given a year for suggestions on what the center should include, where it should be built and the manner in which it could be financed. The early attempts to raise money for the Center and for the American public to see it as a National Cultural Center faltered and by the time that John F. Kennedy assumed the Presidency in January 1961 it appeared the Center was hardly alive. Three years after Congress had authorized the Center, the bank balance in the Center's account was $13,425. 30 and the planned nation-wide fund drive had not materialized.
It took enormous individuals from Jackie Kennedy Onassis to Roger Stevens and many others who decided that a National Cultural Center would have enormous importance to the cultural life of the Nation as a whole. With the unfortunate death of President Kennedy, the Center gained a name and a cause and after several years, in 1971, at the groundbreaking ceremony.
Besides President Johnson, Senator-elect Robert F. Kennedy (D., N.Y.) and Roger Stevens spoke, Sir John Gielgud read President Kennedy's favorite passages from Shakespeare's Henry V, and Jason Robards, Jr. read from a speech President Kennedy once gave on the place of art in America.
President Johnson remarked that "if it fulfills our hopes, this Center will be, at once, a symbol and a reflection and a hope. It will symbolize our belief that the world of creation and thought are at the core of all civilization. Our Civilization, too, will largely survive in the works of our creation. There is a quality in art which speaks across the gulf dividing man from man and nation from nation, and century from century. That quality confirms the faith that our common hopes may be more enduring than our conflicting hostilities. Even now men of affairs are struggling to catch up with the insights of great art. The stakes may well be the survival of civilization. The personal preferences of men in government are not important -- except to themselves. However, it is important to know that the opportunities we give to the arts is a measure of the quality of our civilization. It is important to be aware that artistic activity can enrich the life of our people, which really is the central object of Government. It is important that our material prosperity liberate and not confine the creative spirit.”
Besides President Johnson, Senator-elect Robert F. Kennedy (D., N.Y.) and Stevens spoke, Sir John Gielgud read President Kennedy's favorite passages from Shakespeare's Henry V, and Jason Robards, Jr. read from a speech President Kennedy once gave on the place of art in America.
The Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center, the Kennedy Center Act clearly stated what would be its mission:
Sec. 4. The Board shall
(1) present classical and contemporary music, opera, drama, dance and poetry from this and other countries,
(2) present lectures and other programs,
(3) develop programs for children and youth and the elderly (and for other age groups as well) in such arts designed specifically for their participation, education, and recreation,
(4) provide facilities for other civic activities at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
(5) provide within the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts a suitable memorial in honor of the late President.
A Report entitled: "What Goes Into It?" presented to the Board of Trustees and it stressed that "from morning to evening its activities should animate the performing arts into a cohesive unit and prevent the whole complex from being merely a renting operations." Stevens wanted the trustees to support creative as well as performing artists; to preserve the diversity of the American performing arts; to educate, elevate standards of taste and vision and museum exhibits; to encourage local, national and international companies and artists to come to the Center.
But above all, it was national leadership that was most important: The Center must supply leadership. It should furnish guidance and establish national goals.
The center will be a catalytic agent to foster the development and appreciation of the performing arts.”
On March 1, 1967, Stevens announced that the Kennedy Center would be the headquarters of national companies of actors, dancers and musicians, who someday would tour the world as representatives of the Federal Government, Stevens did not see the Kennedy Center as only a beautiful building to house visiting virtuosi, rather they "envision the Kennedy Center to be a powerful, vital force that will influence, integrate and invigorate the performing arts throughout the land, drawing the talents of the entire nation to this showplace on the Potomac." And once again he reiterated the desire for national companies of ballet, opera and drama which "will seek to bring the genius of America's most promising talent directly to the entire nation...And probably the most important question of all, "In the background of all the questions is the fundamental one whether such an institution can remain viable in the face of turbulent social and artistic currents clearly headed in a different direction."
If we agree a National Theatre Center is necessary for the creative life of our country, which would also encapsulate a National Repertory Acting Company, and bring to the forefront the finest talents we have in this country, providing them a home in which to work in, to grow in and be nourished by. And providing all the stories of our people – with its doors open to all, making it accessible to all in our society, rich and poor, young and old. Then we must be linked with every school district in every state. All students and teachers would have to be able to come from all corners of every state and beyond. Tours of plays would need to be provided to strengthen the relationship between the National Theatre and every region. So advocacy is required for a National Theatre and millions would need to be involved throughout the state. A dedicated group of staff members would need to conduct an extensive campaign to ensure that legislators of both parties know of the widespread support created at the grassroots level.
I believe the time has come to build a National Theatre Center in this country.
I know the statement alone will dredge up countless arguments and debates about its implausibility, it's impracticability, and downright absolute impossibility.
So since we know "we can't do it," "it'll never happen," and "it's not necessary" - what if we had a National Theatre Center? Let's say, we did. Could you envision it? What would you want it to be? What would it mean to you?
I see us as the greatest country in the world actually having a home for all our theater artists, for all our citizens. A place where everyone can come and be welcomed - young and old, rich and poor. Open every day to the general public, much like the National Gallery of Art. A place where our citizens will be nourished and entertained, enlightened and embraced through live theater. Where everyone can walk in and say: "This is who I am. A member of the human race."
A National Theatre Center will draw from our greatest strengths, not from our fears, from our richest theatrical traditions, not from our doubts.
As a vast people, full of vitality, when we look inside ouselves, we have to ask: What have we become?
By having a true National Theatre Center built from the deep well of our souls, we will help others grow and shape their life force, involve all our love, enabling others to see themselves in a more enlightened and compassionate way. • 2011