By Isaac Butler
Back when the Guthrie announced their 2012/2013 season, there was quite a bit of outcry within the theatrical community both in Minneapolis and at large over the bland, monochromatic nature of its all white, entirely male (with the exception of one co-director) offerings.In fact, rather than program a single work by a woman and.or person of color, the Guthrie had instead chosen to lavishly produce three different plays by Artistic Director Joe Dowling's friend Christopher Hampton, best known to American audiences as the translator of Yasmina Reza's plays and the writer of David Cronenberg's worst film.
I wrote about it a few times (the first one is here) and the issue received quite a bit of local attention in Minneapolis, leading to some minor efforts at inclusion on the Guthrie part and this combative interview with Joe Dowling, that is like a Greatest Hits of Diversity Excuse-Making, including such timeless classics as It's Diverse in Other Ways, We Program the Best Plays We Can, and, of course, the Box Office Defense:
"you know so much of our annual budget depends on box office. We really do have to (unintelligible) 1100 seat house in the Wurtele thrust, with 700 seats in the McGuire proscenium, and 200 seats in the Dowling Studio. So we have to sell a majority of those seats every year or our budgets wont balance."
In other words, the Guthrie's new, huge complex and three separate spaces necessitated more conservative, less adventuresome work. This stood in stark contrast to the promises that Dowling made to the theatrical and funding community while he was actually campaigning for the new space, in which he regularly stated that the new space would allow the Guthrie room to more adventurous and diverse work. In fact, as Anne Bogart's "Conversations with Anne" reveals, major industry figures like Ben Cameron and Oskar Eustis specifically held up the Guthrie as an example of a company that was doing new building right, as a way of doing better, more interesting, more diverse work.
So given that box office was apparently such a major part of the Guthrie's considerations, it's worth looking at how the Dry White Male Season worked out for them. And it turns out it was basically a disaster. Over the course of 2012/2013 season, the Guthrie went from having a surplus to a close to half a million dollar deficit, and much of the blame can be laid directly at the unpopular, criticaly unloved trilogy of Christopher Hampton plays that Dowling went out on such a limb to produce, and which played at around 50% capacity for their runs.
If we drew the same lessons from this that theaters always draw from "underperforming" plays by Black playwrights, The Guthrie would never do a play by a British white male writer ever again. Call me crazy, but I doubt that's what's going to happen here.