By Jane King Hession
All images are courtesy of the Ralph Rapson Papers (N187), Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.
When it debuted in 1963, the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre put Minneapolis on the national cultural map and ushered in a new era in American regional theater. The opening night performance of Hamlet by the talented repertory company riveted the audience, but the Guthrie’s new modern building dazzled as well. Designed by architect Ralph Rapson, it was like nothing anyone had seen before.
Photo (left): The Tyrone Guthrie Theatre with original screen. Photograph by Warren Reynolds.
Everything about the Tyrone Guthrie Theater was new and different. It was the first American regional theater to debut as a professional repertory company in a new building designed solely and specifically for its purposes. The building, in turn, was architecturally significant and would become a prototype for regional theaters across the United States.
The theater was the brainchild of British stage impresario Sir Tyrone Guthrie, a former director of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells Theatres in London, and then artistic director of the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, along with respected Broadway producer Oliver Rea, and New York production manager Peter Zeisler. Seeking an alternative to Broadway’s high rents, union demands, and financial backers’ expectations that every play be a smash, they resolved to create a “new kind of theater” far from New York in which artistic freedom could thrive. The men searched for an American metropolis that could support a professional theater and seven cities expressed interest. They chose Minneapolis because it was large enough to support the project, but small enough that the new theater would be “a big frog,” as Guthrie later recalled in his book, A New Theatre.
The three men were correct in their assumption that the community could raise the necessary money to build the theater. Through public and private support, the steering committee raised more than $2 million. In addition to a monetary gift, the T.B. Walker Foundation donated land, adjoining the Walker Art Center, for the building’s site. Serendipitously, Rapson, who was then head of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, was working on a design for a new auditorium for the Walker at the time; as such he was the logical choice to design the new theater and was awarded the commission.
Photo (right): Rapson expressed his frustrations in a demonic caricature of his nemesis, “Sir Tyrant.”
Rapson was not new to theater design. In 1939, as a student at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, he collaborated with Eero Saarinen and Fred James to design the prize-winning entry for the William and Mary Festival Theatre and Fine Arts Center competition. Although the complex was not built, the drawings (and those from several other entries) were exhibited nationally; venues included the Museum of Modern Art and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Around the same time, for the firm of Saarinen and Saarinen in Bloomfield Hills, he produced designs, drawings, and construction documents for the Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York, and the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, in western Massachusetts.
Rapson’s experience was not enough to convince Tyrone Guthrie of his talents. In their first meeting, Guthrie told Rapson that he would not have been his choice to design the theater. The men continued to clash throughout the project. At one point, Rapson summarized his frustrations with Guthrie in a sketch he titled, “Sir Tyrant.”
Photo (left): Rapson explored several stage configurations and actor-to-audience relationships for the Guthrie Theatre.
Adding to the general tension was the fact that no one, including Guthrie, had a firm idea what this “new kind of theater” would look like. Rapson experimented with several stage/audience relationships from proscenium, to thrust, to theater-in-the round. Both Guthrie and Rapson favored a thrust configuration because seats could wrap the stage on three sides, thereby fostering a more intimate connection between the actors and the audience.
Additionally, Rapson wanted to break up the monotony of what he described as “one large, undifferentiated, static mass,” of seats in which there was a class distinction between those in the orchestra and balcony. He did so by designing an egalitarian, asymmetrical auditorium that eliminated the traditional barriers between the two. The result was a theater in which 1,441 seats were arranged in a 210-degree arc around the stage. Remarkably, no seat was more than forty-five feet, from the stage.
Photo (right): Rapson captured a version of his vision for the asymmetrical auditorium in this evocative sketch.
Guthrie entrusted British theater designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, with the design on the stage itself. Moiseiwitsch, who at Guthrie’s request had created the thrust stage for Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario, responded to Rapson’s dynamic asymmetrical auditorium with an asymmetrical thrust stage. Moiseiwitsch, who had a long and distinguished international career as a set and costume designer, remained with the Guthrie for three seasons creating sets and costumes for thirteen of its productions.
Among the many conflicts that arose between Rapson and Guthrie was the selection of fabric for the theater’s seats. Rapson, who wanted to heighten the festive atmosphere of the auditorium, proposed ten upholstery fabrics in vivid hues to be randomly scattered throughout the house. Guthrie insisted on a muted palette so as not to distract from the play itself, and instructed Rapson to comply with his demand. Rapson defied the mandate and ordered the colorful fabrics. Guthrie’s fury aside, the “confetti” seating would prove to be one of the most iconic features of the iconic building. In December 1963, the colorful, asymmetrical theater interior appeared on the cover of Progressive Architecture magazine.
The design of the theater’s façade presented an even more perplexing challenge. When Rapson asked Guthrie what he thought the exterior should look like, Guthrie replied: “I don’t know what a theater looks like. You keep drawing and I’ll tell you when you’ve got it right.”
Photo (left): This “Layered” design was one of many Rapson considered for the building’s façade.
Rapson did exactly that producing dozens of studies until Guthrie was satisfied. The chosen design was a double-layered façade consisting of an inner, irregularly gridded glass curtain wall, and an outer freestanding screen. The screen was an abstract composition of solids and voids, which wrapped the building like a thespian’s mask; partially veiling—and provocatively revealing—the magic about to unfold on the stage. It also suggested the layers of sets, costumes, and greasepaint that, together, create theatrical illusion. In a May 17, 1963 Time magazine article entitled “Theater: In the Land of Hiawatha,” the screen was described as looking “as if Henry Moore had been doodling on it with a jigsaw.”
Regretfully, the façade was one casualty of early budgetary cutbacks. Instead of constructing it of steel, as Rapson would have preferred, the screen was fabricated of reinforced plywood, coated with Granolux (a marble and granite aggregate in a plastic binder). Unfortunately, the Granolux, was applied when the plywood was damp. As a result, the screen began to deteriorate almost immediately and was removed in 1974.
Sadly, the building later met a similar fate. By the early 2000s, the Guthrie organization had outgrown its original home. With no option to expand on site, they commissioned French architect Jean Novel to design a new multi-stage, $125 million theater on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. At the same time the new Guthrie opened in 2006, the Walker Art Center selected the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron to expand their facilities. Sadly, the new design did not include reuse of the Guthrie. Although the Rapson-designed building was determined to be eligible for National Register designation and was included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2002 list of most endangered buildings, it was demolished in 2006. The site is now a green space used by the Walker Art Center.
Photo (right): A view of a performance of The Three Sisters during the Guthrie Theatre’s first season. Photograph by Duff Johnson.
The images seen here, and many other original drawings, models, photographs, and ephemera, are featured in the exhibition, Ralph Rapson: A Legacy In Architecture and Design, currently on display at the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota. The material was selected from the extensive Ralph Rapson Papers at the Northwest Architectural Archives at the University of Minnesota.
Jane King Hession is the curator of Ralph Rapson: A Legacy in Architecture and Design, and co-author of Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design.