The Challenge of Building a Corps of Actors

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

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.

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.''

Along with ``The Duchess of Malfi,'' written by another contemporary of Shakespeare, John Webster, ``Volpone'' is ``developing the company,'' training them ``to speak these classics,'' says Michael Lupu, the Guthrie's dramaturge. Next year, Wright plans to stage a challenging group of Shakespeare histories: ``Richard II,'' ``Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2'' (both in one evening), and ``Henry V. '' ``We're in a position now,'' says Wright, ``where such a project is attainable.''

The other carrot - raising actors' salaries - is tied to a $25 million endowment drive now under way. Begun last year, the fund has already topped $15.5 million. By increasing compensation, says Wright, the theater will ``make it clear to actors that we don't take advantage of them.''

Those who've long tracked the ups and downs of the Guthrie years are, in general, pleased with recent developments.

``I see a circling back to the original assumption that theater is an actor's medium,'' says Archibald Leyasmeyer, an associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Guthrie's executive board from 1973 to '86. ``The two great support systems for actors are unemployment (checks) and (acting in) commercials ... the actor becomes a gypsy traveling from place to place.'' The endowment concept, says Mr. Leyasmeyer, though employed by such other arts organizations as symphony orchestras, has been a rarity for theater companies. If successful, the plan could be ``important not only for the Guthrie, but for American regional theater,'' in general, as a model for stability.

In developing the acting company, Wright is ``solving the part of the problem he can solve,'' agrees Scott Borg, a Twin Cities-based theater writer who grew up attending the Guthrie and is about to publish a college textbook on ``The Secrets of Drama.'' Mr. Borg is concerned whether guest directors (Wright directs some productions himself) will sufficiently share Wright's artistic vision and skill. He recalls standing in line for tickets to see Ibsen's ``Wild Duck'' next to a high school teacher from a small town who had brought his students in a minivan to see the production. The teacher went away disappointed, says Borg, because the director had chosen to reinterpret the text from a viewpoint that, in the teacher's mind, had changed its meaning entirely.

While this incident occurred before Wright's tenure, it illustrates the kind of balancing act an artistic director faces.

``When you do the classics and people think they know them ... it's a really disturbing thing'' to see them reinterpreted, says Patrice Koelsch, director of the Center for Arts Criticism in St. Paul, Minn.

To continue to develop a knowledgeable audience the Guthrie has renewed its commitment to educational programs. A $500,000 grant from the Pillsbury Foundation, for example, will provide tickets to inner-city students. But molding season-ticket holders for the 21st century isn't the sole reason for reaching out, says Wright. ``A lot of people look at it as cementing the audience of the future - and maybe that's true.... [But] I'm talking about people's lives.'' Because he was exposed to theater, along with music and painting, as a child, he says, ``My life is different. My life is better. I think better thoughts because that was available to me.''

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