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The Challenge of Building a Corps of Actors

To attract them, Guthrie Theater's artistic director Garland Wright offers artistic growth - and money

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1989



MINNEAPOLIS

TAKE a backstage tour at the Guthrie Theater and you'll find the show behind the show: sumptuous costumes in the making; huge sets waiting silently to dazzle audiences; intricate models and blueprints for future stagings; fake-blood packs ready for another murderous night of ``The Duchess of Malfi''; a prop room replete with dramatic icons from the skull in ``Hamlet'' (``Alas, poor Yorick'') to Richard's armor. One enduring trademark of the Guthrie, founded in 1963 and generally considered the granddaddy of nonprofit, professional regional theater, has been its talented craftspeople, working literally behind the scenes to create illusions that charm or chill.

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But wander into artistic director Garland Wright's windowless office, a quiet haven somewhere in the midst of this warren of activity, and he wants to talk most about some other essential craftspeople: the actors.

Rebuilding a company of outstanding actors is a top priority for Wright, who took over at the Guthrie in 1986. A core of about 10 is on board now, he explains, with others being added ``person by person over time'' until they eventually reach some 35 to 40. A noticable shift in his thinking has already occurred, says Wright. ``I now chose plays for [my] actors. When I first came, I chose plays to attract actors.''

Possessed of a quiet voice, with words punctuated by thoughtful pauses and deep breaths, Wright doesn't display the kind of fiery energy one might expect from a young director entrusted with a theatrical landmark. But talk awhile, notice the way ideas tickle his thinking and bring a chuckle, and one begins to see an intense student of theater who doesn't pretend to know all the answers but still enjoys searching for the right questions. His passion seems inward - and deep.

In January of 1987, just six months after Wright took over, the Guthrie announced a five-year long-range plan. Central to the plan was the reassembling of the acting company, which had essentially been disbanded in the early 1980s in favor of the free-lance casting of plays.

To attract the actors, he's waved two carrots: the opportunity for growth as actors - and better wages. Next season, for example, the Guthrie will employ a full-time vocal coach to help the actors build skills in the many speaking styles a repertory company must master, and to meet the rigorous vocal requirements of the Guthrie's 1,441-seat auditorium.

Part of the ``technical growth'' of actors, says Wright, is the ability to ``speak these texts.... Repertory becomes a tool for artistic growth.'' It's increasingly rare, he says, to find actors ``who were serious about their classical training'' when they were in professional programs. Others who found work doing commercials, television, and films have not been able to polish their craft through the demands of classic roles.

One play in the company's current repertoire - ``Volpone,'' by early 17th-century playwright Ben Jonson - requires the kind of verbal gymnastics many actors may not be prepared for. The density of word imagery is daunting, says Wright. ``He uses 47 words, where Shakespeare would use 12.''