Artistic director Garland Wright may be the Guthrie Theater's `Mr. Right'

It was born out of boredom with Broadway. Its advent established a new era in American theater. During the past quarter-century, the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis has been on the cutting edge. Opened in the 1963 with a daring cultural concept - performing ``Hamlet'' in the hinterlands - the Guthrie became the first American beachhead for a distinctly British mode of theater: classical drama performed by a resident company of actors.

Today, that artistic concept has a new torchbearer. Garland Wright, a former Guthrie associate director, is the latest artistic director at this trailblazing - and recently troubled - theater. Although Mr. Wright moved into the job last season, the 1987-88 season is the first to bear his imprint.

His directorship augurs change for the Guthrie and possibly American theater as a whole. For not only is Wright reasserting the Guthrie's commitment to classical drama and an acting company, but he's at the forefront of the broader effort to achieve a better balance between institutional concerns and artistry in American theater.

``It seems to me the [theatrical] event itself is what we have committed our lives to, and that we have to deal with it ... as artists,'' Wright said in a recent interview.

Already the bearded director is speaking softly but wielding the proverbial big stick. After his first year at the helm, Wright has shifted hundreds of thousands of dollars from the administrative to the artistic side of the Guthrie's $8million annual budget. He has raised actors' pay some 10 percent, and he plans even greater increases to a base salary of $40,000, the highest in the country. He also wants to expand the size of the company and open an experimental acting laboratory and a wing for playwrights.

Although this season's inaugural productions - Moli`ere's classic ``The Misanthrope'' and Eugene Labiche's 19th-century farce ``The Piggybank'' - are retreads of earlier Wright work, he is winning kudos from inside and outside the Guthrie for his commitment to theater as a collection of artists.

``I think Garland's appointment ... is a significant move forward'' for regional theater, says Zelda Fichandler, producing director of the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., where Wright has directed. ``He's chosen to take responsibility for the theater of the future.''

``The Guthrie has been a director's theater forever,'' says Claudia Wilkins, a longtime Guthrie actress. ``Garland wants it to be a place where actors [will want to] come to work. He wants a real acting company.''

Indeed, with Wright's assumption of the Guthrie mantle, the artists and administrators here have all but breathed a collective sigh of relief. Founded by the late Sir Tyrone Guthrie, renowned director of London's Old Vic and founder of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the theater early achieved a nearly peerless reputation for artistry. Lately, however, the Guthrie hasn't worn its venerability well. The much-heralded artistic tenure of Liviu Ciulei, the Romanian who became artistic director in 1980, started to erode. Internal power struggles erupted; the acting company began disintegrating; and audiences declined. The tension was said to be palpable.

Enter Mr. Wright.

If not exactly a theatrical Wunderkind (or even the Guthrie board's first choice for the post), Wright boasted a solid directorial reputation, two Obie Awards, and the advantage of being a known commodity. He refers to himself as a ``Ciulei prot'eg'e.'' His productions of ``Candide'' and ``Guys and Dolls'' were considered high points of his associate directorship here. After six years of association, Wright wears the Guthrie tradition close to his own heart.

``The Guthrie is a classical theater,'' he says. ``The classics have been the focus of my work for quite a while. Besides, there's a history to this place, and I'm the first person who's taken over the theater who has had a history with it.''

Wright is also making some history of his own. Unlike other regional theater directors, who wrestle with powerful boards of trustees and managing directors, Wright has won virtual carte blanche here. Both the board and the Guthrie's new executive director, Edward Martenson, are giving him free rein. Cognoscenti say he holds the best regional theater job in the country. As one company actress characterizes the new regime, ``This is Garland's theater now.''

Wright himself defines his artistic priorities in terms of a renewed commitment to classical drama, a reexamination of contemporary work, and the reassertion of the actor as the heart of the theater.

On the first point, he says, ``When the [regional theater] movement began, there were a lot of companies doing classical plays. Then, for certain financial reasons, the repertory changed. [The Guthrie] is one of the few theaters doing this heavy classical work, where [the actors] learn this kind of skill.''

On the second, he notes, ``It seems to me that a great classical theater has to be putting money in the bank. One hundred years from now, people will want to know, `Where is the great literature of 1987?' Great writing is what we're here to enliven and preserve.''

On the third, he says, ``No amount of brilliance of directorial concept, design, or writing could take away the scaldingly clear reality that ... the actor felt second-rate'' here recently. As the salary increases suggest, Wright intends to change that.

Nonetheless, his artistic ideals have yet to be proved on the Guthrie's stage. And, if the season's initial productions are any indication, significant challenges remain.

Both ``The Misanthrope'' and ``The Piggybank'' are lushly designed shows, strengthened by a couple of standout performances - notably by Daniel Davis, a company newcomer. But they suffer from a heavy directorial hand.

Ironically, greater interest is being generated among critics by the forthcoming Ciulei production of Euripides' Greek classic ``The Bacchae.''

Wright will also need to keep a weather eye on the largest theater subscriber audience in the country (down some 14 percent last year from the previous season), as well as on some thriving local competition. Says one local observer, ``The Guthrie used to be the only game in town. Not anymore.''

Still, hopes here run high. ``We have to invest in our craft,'' says Richard Ooms, a longtime Guthrie actor. ``We have to begin to feel as if we're artists. ... Garland is going to bring that back.''

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