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Big theater on campus

Think you can't fund arts in lean times? The Guthrie in Minnesota proved otherwise.

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The facility will also house all the Guthrie's rehearsal, production, and administrative space. The Guthrie's operations have been scattered at five locations, and this will save both time and money, Dowling says.

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Though the state aid was crucial, private funds account for the lion's share of the building's funding - $85 million, of which $69 million has been raised. "We've had an enormously generous response from the private sector," Dowling says as he sits in his office in the old Guthrie.

Though the Guthrie is known for its outstanding stagings of Shakespeare and other classics, Dowling's ambition is to commission works by contemporary playwrights. "Very often, people don't write plays today for 1,300-seat thrust stages," he says. "So having those other two spaces to play with in terms of new writing, I think, will add greatly to the reputation of the Guthrie as a major theater in the US."

He comes to the Guthrie from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, which is "almost exclusively supported by the state," he says. For him, the Guthrie's approach is a balanced one, blending private and public funding.

Despite the economic woes of arts groups, a number of new theater complexes are being built around the country. New York's Carnegie Hall has just opened a new midsize (644-seat) underground space called Zankel Hall. At the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the $52 million Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center will open Sept. 27. In Boston, the Huntington Theatre, owned by Boston University, is building two additional smaller theaters.

Finding donors for these building projects is often easier than, say, funding an endowment, Cameron says, because the need for a new building is often easily apparent to the donor's eye. They're also attractive because "you can put your name on a theater and have a plaque in the lobby," he says.

Theater 'campuses'

Today's projects are more likely to be about gaining flexibility and space for new programs and activities than merely adding seats. Theater companies are creating "campuses" that they aim to fill with a variety of artistic activity nearly round the clock. "Many are producing extensive education programs" for both children and adults, Cameron says.

By 2005, for example, the Alley Theatre in Houston plans to reduce the size of its main theater from 824 to about 750 seats, while adding a 150-seat cabaret for late-night musical shows and lectures. It will also add amenities like a bookstore and cafe. Last November, the theater opened a state-of-the-art theater-production center in floors 14 through 18 of a parking garage adjacent to the theater, to be used for set building and rehearsal space.

The Alley, which sought no government funds for its $30 million project, envisions itself as an arts hub that's active from morning until well past midnight, "a town-center concept," says managing director Paul Tetreault.

Another major regional theater, the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, Calif., replaced its tiny four-decade-old second stage last fall with a larger modern one. Now "both stages here can do any kind of production" from an intimate one- or two-person show to a Broadway musical, says spokesman Cris Gross.

These regional theaters, Cameron says, are being driven by a set of new artistic directors who want to revamp their aging facilities to match their new visions. "What different-sized spaces and different configured spaces afford you are different audience dynamics and a different degree of intimacy," he says. "And a different degree of financial burden." In today's economy, he notes, a too-large auditorium can be "a terrible burden for a theater to carry."