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Guthrie targets more than just the theater crowd

By Jeff Baenen

Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Come for a play. Stay for the ambiance.

That’s what Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, wants people to do at the shimmering new $125 million complex, a huge space with a fine-dining restaurant, a cafe, 11 bars and its own viewing platform of the nearby Mississippi River.

Almost a year after the venerated regional theater opened along a riverbank, the people who run it are celebrating a mostly successful launch — but acknowledging they want and need to draw more people than just theater lovers.

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Theatergoers have flocked to the new Guthrie’s three stages, but Dowling and others say play attendance isn’t enough. They want people to experience, and even just hang out, at the massive dark-blue building that’s earned international acclaim for its rounded, off-beat architecture rendered in metal and glass, designed to pay homage to the industrial roots of its neighborhood.

"We don’t think of a theater as a place (where) ‘I can go at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and hang out and have a coffee,"’ said Trish Santini, a Guthrie spokeswoman. "You associate the theater with a ticket and arriving at a certain time."

In its new location, the Guthrie is easy to get to, and has plenty of parking (a new parking ramp across from the Guthrie has space for 1,000 cars) and access to nearby restaurants.

The Guthrie’s stages are running at 89 percent capacity. An adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s "The Great Gatsby" — the new Guthrie’s first production — played to full houses last summer. The nonprofit theater also expects a budget surplus this year, which would come on an operating budget that has swelled from around $10 million in 1997 to $24 million this year.

The Guthrie’s subscriber base remains steady from last season at about 27,000 season ticket-holders and is projected to stay at that level next season, said Dowling, who would like to rebuild it to the record 32,000 the old theater saw in July 2002. Next season will feature 100 more performances than the current season on the theater’s three stages, he said.

"It’s having everything buzzing. The energy. It’s what it was designed for, was to have the three theaters in operation all the time," Dowling said.

Dowling bristles at suggestions that the Guthrie played it safe during its inaugural season with productions of "Lost in Yonkers" and "The Glass Menagerie." The Guthrie needs plays that attract a mainstream audience, he said.

The building itself hasn’t been perfect. The lighting was turned up after complaints that the lobbies were too dim; signs were added to direct theatergoers.

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Barbara Bryne, an actress who appeared in more than 60 productions at the old Guthrie, including "The Matchmaker" (1975), "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1976) and "The Glass Menagerie" (1979), said she believes the plays that were performed at the old venue will live on in people’s memories.

"The new Guthrie will build new memories. And the ghosts will follow us to the new building," Bryne said.

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