Adding to a list that includes The Walker Arts Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the new Public Library, the latest architectural spectacular to open in Minneapolis is the Jean Nouvel-designed Guthrie Theatre. The building incorporates three performance spaces, the 1,100-seat Wurtele Thrust Stage, the 700-seat McGuire Proscenium Stage, and the 200-seat Dowling Studio black box space.
Nouvel was inspired by Minneapolis' industrial past, which is especially evident on the riverfront where the new theatre is located. The circular exterior wall of the thrust stage echoes the round grain silos of the area, and the large rectangle of the proscenium stage evokes the flour mills that were so important to the growth of the city. The structure is clad in dark blue metal, and instead of a traditional marquee, the architect inserted images on steel panels onto the side of the building. They include photographs from past Guthrie productions with actors Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and George Grizzard.
On top of the building are three programmable LED screens built by Hi Tech Electronic Displays of Clearwater, FL. The screens can broadcast information about productions or images from them. During the theatre's run of The Great Gatsby, the screens showed images of an eye. The tallest of the three “masts” stands 80', and images can rise vertically up the screen like smoke escaping the power plant chimneys across the Mississippi from the theatre. Nouvel also sees them as an answer to the Gold Medal Flour and Pillsbury signs atop the factories nearby.
The new complex is also designed to be inviting to non-ticket holders, incorporating a cantilevered “endless bridge” that juts out 12 stories above the river, with a viewing platform at one end. To reach the observation deck, visitors pass along a corridor with windows cut out to showcase specific views, chosen by Nouvel, and framed in reflective metal.
The new performance spaces were a collaboration between Nouvel, theatre consultants Fisher Dachs, and the Guthrie management, represented by Michael Gross, vice president of design and construction at The Keewaydin Group.
According to Gross, an important non-negotiable point for the Guthrie team was the recreation of the original thrust stage designed by the architect Ralph Rapson and designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch.
“The idea was to take all the wonderful things from the old space and replicate them, while addressing ADA issues and updating it,” says Gross. The new Wurtele Thrust Stage replicates the “Alpine Slope” balcony of the original, which comes down to orchestra level. They have retained the multi-colored seats, and the seating remains segmented, although initially, the architect wanted to replace seating sections with concentric rings. Gross says another benefit of keeping the spirit of the iconic stage intact was that the actors were instantly familiar with the space, despite the move to a new building.
Legend has it that when Ralph Rapson toured the Wurtele Thrust Stage in the new building, he became very emotional seeing such a tribute to his original design. Frank Butler, the Guthrie's director of production, describes the new thrust stage as a “stunning update” of the original one at Vineland Place, but although drawings of the new stage would line up exactly if overlaid onto the old one, the new theatre designers have included greater functionality without compromising the intimacy of the original.
Douglas Stebbins, associate in charge of the project for Fisher Dachs, says, “From the beginning, we assumed that they were going to replicate the thrust stage, but we went to the staff and asked, ‘What don't you like about the old space?’” After some discussion, the design team was able to improve some of the sight lines around the stage by wrapping the audience 160° around the center, down from 210° in the old space. They took care to make sure that none of the seats in the new space are further from the stage than in the old one, and the room has roughly similar dimensions.
Another improvement that has revolutionized the way productions are staged is the addition of a 90' fly tower and a new counterweight rigging system. The old space had less than a 50' high stage house, the result of an artistic decision to focus more on actors than scenery. This winter, the new rigging system will allow a ghost from A Christmas Carol to fly down onto the stage, as well as the hanging of more traditional scenic elements. Butler, while welcoming the new technology incorporated into the three performance spaces, says of the new rigging capacity, “We are all just so excited to be able to do what most other theatres have taken for granted for years!”
Around the thrust stage in the new Guthrie runs a ramp, with two vomitories at the proscenium and two in the house to allow for additional exits and an uneven stage landscape. Dubbed “the moat,” the ramp is deeper than in the original theatre and sits on Serapid lifts so it can be raised up to stage level. This creates what stage crew term “the full flight deck,” or the largest possible stage area, which they used for the Wurtele's inaugural production, The Great Gatsby. Lighting positions were also doubled, with the addition of three half circles of catwalks radiating outwards above the stage.
Before choosing new equipment, the Guthrie staff did extensive research and visited several manufacturers. Butler says, “Basically everything is ETC — dimming, fixtures, and control.” The Wurtele features 466 ETC Source Fours, and equipment shared between the three spaces includes seven Robert Juliat Followspots, six 10" Fresnels, one 14" Fresnel, and Wybron Forerunner scrollers.
Butler chose the ETC Obsession II 4600 channel V5.1.1 console for each of the theatres. “We liked the ETC facility in Wisconsin and knew we could get support for the equipment, and we also needed staff to be able to train once and work in all three places so it simplified things for us,” he says.
The McGuire Proscenium Stage lighting equipment also relies heavily on Source Fours: 32 50° fixtures, 82 36°, 152 26°, 96 19°, 12 10°, and 12 25-50° Source Fours Zooms. There are also 66 Source Four PARs.
The McGuire stage also has a 10'×33' orchestra pit, allowing the theatre to host musicals for the first time, and is on the same level as the Wurtele. The flexible-seating Dowling Studio a few stories higher up is equipped with 180 Source Fours, from 19 to 50°, 48 PAR 64s, and 24 PARnels.
One original request from the Guthrie was to find a way to place the scene shop onsite, easily accessible to the three performance spaces, since the scene shop for the original theatre was several miles offsite. Douglas Stebbins at Fisher Dachs says the designers thought about several scenarios until Nouvel came up with the idea of putting the scene shop above a municipal parking lot across the street and building a skywalk over to the theatre. “That led the public spaces to be elevated, where there is a view of the river,” says Stebbins. “The skywalk has 25' doors and is on the same level as the two largest theatres so that scenery can be wheeled over easily.” Pieces can be taken up to the Dowling Studio in a 10'×17' freight elevator.
“Having everybody under the same roof means we are able to take on much more production support,” says Butler. The technical team can now meet more easily and create scenic pieces that don't have to fit into the back of a truck. A new onsite recording studio is connected to the rest of the theatre with a fiber optic network and Nexus Star router. Butler adds, “We can almost control anything from anywhere.”