In the beginning, we’re told, was the Word. In American regional theatre, the word was that of Sophocles and Schiller, Shaw and Shepard, above all Shakespeare. And, at the beginning, it was scripture.
When the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the model and seminal force behind what would become the American regional theatre movement, launched its first season 30 years ago, it was driven by the Word.
Patterned after the British rep system as filtered through Canada’s Stratford Festival, the Guthrie was a celebration of the primacy of the Word. This respect for text manifested itself in what would be the most dramatic, influential and ultimately controversial feature of the new theatre: Tyrone Guthrie’s thrust stage. Within a few years of the Guthrie’s founding, open stages popped up all over the country, clearly the stage of choice for serious classical theatres.Order now
The Guthrie has changed over 32 years, reflecting, as any living theatre must, great changes in our culture. Nowhere is that social change more dramatically seen than in the Guthrie’s relationship to the Word as presented on the thrust stage.
By the time Guthrie and his longtime collaborator, designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, brought their new theatre to Minneapolis, they were in full revolt against the dominant proscenium, set firmly against the psychological realism that had made the proscenium popular and even necessary.
The proscenium had been a product of the 17th-century opera stage, a stage of pictorial spectacle. In the 19th century, with the rise of naturalism, it had become a convenient picture frame for realistic illusion. Suspension of disbelief, Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it. Guthrie didn’t buy it. “It has always seemed to me,” he said, “that people do not submit to illusion in the theatre much after the age of 10 or 11.”
Instead, Guthrie and Moiseiwitsch harkened back to the Elizabethan era with its vestiges of Greek and Roman platform stages thrust out among the surrounding audience.
Instead of the horizontal, pictorial proscenium stage, the more vertical Guthrie space folded the audience around the playing area on three sides, involving them more intimately with actors – the carriers of the Word close enough to be heard, as well as seen in fresh proximity, almost touchable.
Sets would perhaps consist of a plain upstage-center stagehouse to allow levels and balcony scene (though the house wasn’t permanent as it was at Stratford) or touches of atmosphere (a tapestry to denote a baronial dining scene, banners waving as actors raced across stage on the diagonal, off to some rousing war or other). But mostly there would be very little set at all. The opening play, a virtually uncut Hamlet, was scenically austere, constantly reminding spectators that they were seeing a new kind of stage. It was pure theatre – the Word, the actor, the audience.
From Guthrie’s tenure through that of his protege, Michael Langham (1971-77), the primacy of the Word endured, and there seemed to be an increasing number of actors who knew how to project easily to the farthest reaches of the balcony, who dealt with language as something dynamic and living.
But the Word began running into trouble in the ’70s. American audiences and artists increasingly began distrusting words and ultimately began losing the ability to listen closely to language. A perceptual revolution was underway.
There were a host of reasons for this: The specter of politicians saying one thing while TV cameras off in Vietnam showed the opposite; the increasing deluge of hype, spin, buzzwords and ad-babble; the realization that language was constructed and controlled, giving rise to poststructuralism and the politicalization of words; television itself with its short sound bites and MTV images; the “post-literacy” of the technological age; the ever louder, more intense volume of the world from rock records to Broadway amplification; actors trained more to caress the microphone than to project into theatre spaces; breakthroughs in theatre technology from lighting to sound to projections, on and on, take your pick.
At the same time there was a revolution in world theatre that would affect everyone. Led by the likes of Peter Brook, Giorgio Strehler, Peter Stein and Robert Wilson, directors tried to make audiences see, if not hear, the classics anew, trying to recontextualize them in the media age so they would again be surprising.