Sunday, June 18, 2006

Thinking Inside The Box

One third success. Two-thirds disaster.

The New Guthrie Theatre complex is complete, the Weekend of Culture (see previous post) continued with a tour and preview of the facility, located on the banks of the Mississippi River in Downtown Minneapolis. The theatres themselves: one a thrust stage- virtually reproducing the legendary original, one a conventional proscenium, and the third a small (250 seat) experimental "box". Thankfully, they are excellent, the thrust stage in particular maintains the tradition and actually has had some of its problem areas "massaged" a bit, I fully expect that those improvements will be appreciated more and more as the season progresses. The backstage and production areas (both of which were extremely limited in the old theatre) have reportedly been elevated to the state of the art.

So what, you may ask, is the problem?

A theatre is, basically, a box within a box. There is the inner box, the sanctum mysterioso, where the "dramatic experience" takes place- where technical requirements trump any "aesthetic" concerns, once the house lights go down "The play's the thing"- as it should be, the form truly follows function.

The outside of the box, the architectual face the theatre presents to the world, is massive, cold and impersonal. Even the laser-etched graphics suggest a remove from reality; its scale and appearance are more suited to a race of metallic 40 foot tall robots than puny flesh and blood humans. Here is another take on the externals from Lileks.

In the critical space between the outside and the inside is where the "theatre-going experience" takes place. This is where couples and groups meet and talk before, during and after the performance- where people see and are seen by each other. The coldness of the exterior is magnified in the interior, with dark, gloomy spaces accented by stainless steel and black enamel, Euro-Moderne circa 1960. The creepy hallways around the main auditorium are dismal, with tiny and crude photographic scenes from previous productions as the only decor. There is, of course, the "skyway to nowhere" a stunt of a cantilever which is, thankfully, a bit brighter and opens to a balcony that overlooks a vital and often ignored component of Minneapolis- the waterfront. A bird's-eye (God's eye?) view is hard to condemn- although this view too is somewhat distant and removed from the immediate surroundings. Elsewhere in the complex there are tinted windows that allow partial vistas of the neighborhood, these views should improve as development continues (although the spectre of a sea of tacky billboards and banners is always a possibility.)

Lest I seem reactionary in my opinions, consider this- in the old theatre's common spaces, you entered and were bathed in north-light, you could see (and be seen) and connect with people on all levels, on the mezzanines, on the stairs, on the patio, even in the street with the beautiful sculpture garden beyond- all of this made you a performer in a wonderful, three-dimensional play with gorgeous lighting, a sense of expectation and drama; a completely integrated experience! Contrast that with entering the new building- dwarfed by unadorned (except for the vapid laser-etchings) 40 foot tall walls (hope you like gray), torture-chamber furniture and a claustrophobic 200 foot 4 story escalator to take you to the lobbies. Kafkaesque is the first adjective that springs to mind.

The stakes in this project are high ($135 million, about 1/3 taxpayer money) so I wish it well. If it can elevate the performing arts in Minnesota's cultural scene, so much the better. We will support it (and the actual theatre company, under Joe Dowling's direction has been superlative) with our typical Midwestern enthusiasm ("ya, it was pretty good"), hopefully the new venues will bring back the excellence and daring of the 1960's, when Tyrone Guthrie created a dynamic and challenging "theatre."
I heard Sir Tyrone speak once, in 1967- he was brilliant, espousing a theatre of danger, one that was a threat to mediocracy and complacency, a theatre that made a difference. You've got your new theatre Joe, bring it on, just don't ask me to linger in those hideous lobbies.

By Professor Batty


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