Guthrie Theater’s debt to women and diversity

Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling is struggling to protect his theater’s reputation after a week of outrage in the arts community over the Guthrie’s new season, which some have declared “a tragedy.”


Stephen Yoakam as Creon in the Guthrie Theater’s production of “The Burial at Thebes” directed by Marcela Lorca. It was one of two plays directed by women in the Guthrie’s 2011-2012 season

Photo by Michael Brosilow

When the Guthrie Theater announced its 50th Anniversary season last week, the absence of women and minorities among the playwrights and directors ignited a fierce debate in the Twin Cities arts community.

Many who felt they have long been excluded from the Guthrie’s main stage – and some who haven’t – used the Guthrie’s announcement to highlight what they called the flagship theater’s failure to embrace diverse audiences. Actress Heidi Berg was among them:

To suggest that there just aren’t talented women and people of color out there this season is appalling. It isn’t as though the Guthrie’s not hiring from a national and international pool of talent. While we are accustomed to being told there aren’t enough local people qualified to fill positions in the Guthrie season, now we are to believe there aren’t enough talented women and people of color in the WORLD.

The theater’s defenders rushed to say the Guthrie was only doing what it must do to fill seats and stay on budget.

Note: The Guthrie declined to make available members of the theater’s board, on the grounds that the board has no say in the theater’s season.

Given the region’s increasingly diverse population – one the Guthrie will be pressed to cater to in coming years — the controversy might have led to a timely and thoughtful examination of the theater’s selection process.


Christiana Clark played Oya, a talented sprinter, in Pillsbury House Theater’s production of “In the Red and Brown Water.” The play was performed at the Guthrie Theater, but not produced by it.

Image courtesy Pillsbury House Theater

Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling fumbled the opportunity, at first appearing to encourage a discussion on diversity and then – despite his protests to the contrary – taking the defensive. By the end of the week, he was openly hostile to the premise that the Guthrie does not present diverse works. When asked in a recent televised interview about charges that the season suffered from a lack of women, Dowling said:

“This is a self-serving argument that doesn’t hold water.”

Underlying the artistic turmoil surrounding the Guthrie is a fundamental question: Does the theater have any obligation to present the stories of women and people of color? And if so, to what extent?

If not, at what peril is a theater that doesn’t do so, given the demographic changes transforming the nation and the Twin Cities?

In the next three decades, the seven county Twin Cities metro area will see its minority population grow to more than 40 percent of the region, nearly double the current percentage, according a recent report by the Metropolitan Council.

Michelle Hensley, Artistic Director of Ten Thousand Things theater company, and a board member of the national Theater Communications Group, put it this way:

Demographics are changing dramatically, and if the Guthrie doesn’t start making enormous efforts to reach out and engage audiences beyond aging, wealthy white people, it will be struggling to sell seats. It is absolutely in the self-interest of the Guthrie to work hard to make its audiences more inclusive.

And the way you get a more inclusive audience is for them to be able to see themselves, their stories and their perspectives on stage. Theater offers the possibility of stepping into another’s shoes and seeing the world through his or her eyes. For too long we’ve had to look the world through the eyes of white men.


Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling

Image courtesy of the Guthrie

Joe Dowling, in his own words

Joe Dowling’s wide ranging responses to criticism’s of the 50th season might appear to be the comments of a man who’s still figuring out what the issue is, and where he stands. But today’s debate cannot come as a surprise to the man who was interviewed back in 2003 for a City Pages cover story titled “A Woman’s Work is Never Done.” The entire focus of the story was the lack of women playwrights on the Guthrie stage. Here’s an excerpt:

[Dowling] readily admits that his record in the female-representation department is less than sparkling. “A lot of people sort of look at us and throw stones,” he says. “And they’re right to. I don’t object to criticism, I don’t object to the kind of inquiry [City Pages] is making, which is absolutely valid and right. Hands up,” he says, raising his arms like a bank robber. “Caught. We don’t do enough women. Yes. But I think the evidence is that we are shifting in the right direction.”

When Dylan Hicks wrote his piece for the City Pages back in 2003, a survey of the past ten seasons found that only 10 percent of the plays (7 out of 70) on Guthrie’s stages were by women.

Today, a similar look back at the number of female playwrights in the Guthrie Theater’s last ten seasons, as listed on the theater’s own website, finds it staged 111 shows, 18 of which were written by women (that’s counting two plays based on the novels of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen).

That means that in the past decade, 16.2 percent of the plays were written by women.

At this rate, women will make up 50 percent of the playwrights by the year 2036.

However, critics of the Guthrie will tell you that staging a play on the Wurtele thrust stage – which seats 1100 people – is not equal to staging a production in the Dowling studio, which seats less than 200. And many of the works by women or playwrights of color are being relegated to the smaller space.


Greta Oglesby earned rave reviews on stage at the Guthrie for her role in “Caroline, Or Change” written by Tony Kushner.

Photo by Michal Daniel

The Difference a Big Building Makes

When Joe Dowling celebrated the opening of the new Guthrie Theater on the Mississippi riverfront, he had this to say:

I believe that the American resident theater movement, which was founded here in the Twin Cities with the birth of the Guthrie, now stretches from sea to shining sea in theaters all around the country. But it lacks a center,” said Dowling, “it lacks somewhere that can call itself a national center of theater art and theater education. And that is what we aim to become.

Dowling has got his wish. The Guthrie Theater is indeed a national center of theater art and theater education. And as such, the Guthrie is seen as a leader in its field. So what message is it sending to theaters across the country when it programs seasons that are dominated by white men, both as playwrights and in the director’s chair?

Last week Dowling alluded to the pressures of selling tickets when he told the Star Tribune “It is a very stern task to direct on a stage of our size, and I am responsible to the board for the shows we produce” (Point of clarification: the board does not approve the Guthrie’s season, however it does approve the theater’s budget).

So is it impossible for large theaters to stage work by women, or playwrights of color, and still balance the budget?


James Craven, T. Mychael Rambo and Abdul Salaam El Razzac in Penumbra Theatre’s production of “Gem of the Ocean” on the Guthrie Theater’s proscenium stage

Photo: Michal Daniel

No, it’s not impossible, according to Zan Sawyer-Dailey, associate director of the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, which programs three different stages and also runs the national Humana Festival of new plays.

She said her theater makes a concerted effort to program seasons that feature a diverse array of plays.

The community here is richly diverse – African American, Asian American, Hispanics, immigrants coming from Africa and Southeast Asia – and while they are not all a part of our audience, we are still aware that they are a part of our community and we want to make sure that they feel welcomed and embraced if they are able to come to the theater. And to that end we want to make sure that there are stories on stage about their experiences.

Sawyer-Dailey said it’s not just good theater, it’s good business:

Not because we’re making a lot of money off these populations… we see it as good business because we’re good citizens and that’s what we want to be – good citizens to our community. It’s just a responsibility, regardless of whether or not it’s going to develop a new audience.

Sawyer-Dailey admits there are challenges involved in finding and scheduling diverse work, but she says finding female directors is not one of them:

It’s not difficult to find a female director. There are lots and lots of wonderful female directors out there, I think you just have to decide that you want to have them in your season, and find the one you want who best matches whatever projects you’re interested in.


Joe Dowling built the Guthrie Theater complex on the Mississippi River to be a center for regional theater in the nation. So what message is it sending to theaters across the country when it programs seasons that are dominated by white men?

MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Public Funding and a Mission that includes Diversity

In the last three years the Guthrie Theater has received more than $2.2 million from the Minnesota State Arts Board alone. But the Arts Board does not make reflecting a community’s diversity a condition of funding.

Many argue that the recipient of so much public support has an obligation to reflect the diversity of the community in which it lives. Twin Cities theater director Ben Layne wrote in an open letter to Joe Dowling that the season announcement reflects a lack of recognition of the current climate:

There is a real political war going on over Women’s rights, right now, on the campaign trail and in the halls of federal and state houses of government. There is still racism alive and well and at the forefront of national news, due in part to the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. The Guthrie is in a unique position to speak to these issues and more. As the old adage goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” That you doubled down on these choices in your comments to the Star Tribune last week and to TPT this weekend is troubling.

In fact the Guthrie Theater’s own mission mentions diversity:

The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is an American center for theater performance, production, education and professional training. By presenting both classical literature and new work from diverse cultures, the Guthrie illuminates the common humanity connecting Minnesota to the peoples of the world.

The Guthrie does occasionally present work of diverse cultures, but not to the extent that critics would like. And often time “presenting” means giving one of its stages over to Penumbra Theatre or Mu Performing Arts, local theater companies that specialize telling the stories of specific cultures.

The Guthrie has also received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. On two occasions it was awarded $20,000 for specific productions – Burial at Thebes, directed by Guthrie’s only resident female director, Marcela Lorca, and M. Butterfly, written by Asian-American David Henry Hwang. So even the Guthrie Theater recognizes that when applying for grants, diversity is key.


A scene from the Guthrie Theater production of “The Master Butchers Singing Club” written by Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Louise Erdrich, and directed by Francesca Zambello.

Photo by Michal Daniel

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and a National Problem

Many critics point to the Guthrie as the cause of its own problems. Bonnie Schock, one-time Artistic Director of the former Twin Cities theater company Three Legged Race, said there are fewer “high profile” female and minority directors and playwrights because institutions of power and privilege such as the Guthrie are consistently failing to challenge the cultural assumptions that support that power and privilege.

It is the responsibility of our cultural institutions – particularly those that find themselves in the position of controlling a substantial piece of the region’s resources – to use their position to lead. And leadership is hard. Leadership means investing in the future; it means intentionally creating opportunity for those who have historically been denied opportunity.

When asked about the pool of diverse and female playwrights available to major theaters, Jeremy Cohen, Director of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis rattles off an impressive list of names.

We’re now seeing the spotlight shine on such incredible talents as Quiara Alegria Hudes, Lynn Nottage, Sarah Ruhl, Marcus Gardley, Lydia Diamond, Amy Herzog, Qui Nguyen, Young Jean Lee, Tanya Saracho, Christina Anderson, Kate Fodor, Tanya Barfield, Annie Baker, Kia Corthron, Carson Kreitzer and Theresa Rebeck — with productions in NYC and around the country.

And for the theatres around the country like Centerstage, Mixed Blood, Berkeley Rep, Ten Thousand Things, Victory Gardens, Children’s Theatre Company, Cornerstone, and the countless others who are producing a truer and more accurate reflection not only of our country…but of the world…they will be the leaders we look to, that we take our children to for inspiration and reflection, and that offer us a visceral experience unlike any other.

According to Cohen currently more than 50 percent of the Playwrights’ Center’s core writers and fellows are women and/or playwrights/theater artists of color.

Making theater more inclusive is a national challenge according to Teresa Eyring, the Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for American theater.

Diversity is one of our core values; we believe that the theater field should be diverse and inclusive. What I say now and really believe is that the theater field should be striving to model the world we want to see, not reflecting the parts of the world around us that are lagging behind.

Eyring says a number of major theaters across the country need to be more inclusive, and she believes they are aware of the problem. She says the particular difficulties those institutions face are determined, in part, by the character of the institution itself and the community it resides in.

  • Paul W.

    Thank you for some great reporting, Marianne. While the board isn’t overtly responsible for approving Dowling’s programming, they are – and should be – responsible for holding Dowling et al responsible to the mission of the organization. If the season isn’t living up to the mission, you bet the board should raise concern.

  • As veteran professional artist who happens to be female, I wish that I could say I have seen sexism decline over my 30 year career. Instead, I see an oscillation of reactive response from artistic leaders as public outrage waxes and wanes.

    In the American theatre women have outnumbered men in our audiences and in our offices for decades, but the power and authority in our field continues to rest with white men: not simply as artistic leaders but also board members, philanthropists, funders and even critics.

    Except for a handful of exceptional women artistic leaders at large resident theaters and service organizations, the field’s independent female directors,writers and designers lead a precarious existence. Many who find their way to success have troubling stories to tell of what they were asked to barter on the way up. Others find that only complicity with the powers-that-be guarantees them the next promotion. Women artists wish they could forward others careers, but they realize it may be at the expense of their own, and so many women become isolated, feel devalued and find their careers stalled. And the few who speak their minds end up shunned or artistically silenced.

    Worst of all– in cynical institutions when grants are due –women as a group often are devalued in comparison to other under-served populations equally deserving of artistic opportunity. The kind of institutional commitment that waxes and wanes with political or aesthetic fashion is particularly damaging since it’s gives the impression that progress is being made when it’s not.

    Like universities, hospitals and other public trust institutions, arts organizations are first and foremost responsible to their community’s well-being. The role of the board is to ensure an appropriate balance between the community’s needs (including its women artists) and the costs of providing for them. Non-profit theatre’s programming cannot and should not be evaluated solely in financial terms by boards or communities. And board leaders are NOT only financial overseers but stewards of our common good.

    There are significant numbers of women on the Guthrie’s board. I would hope that these fine women would lead the way and insist at taking on the critique and reporting on what specific measures will be taken to address the issues in meaningful and lasting manner.

    It’s well past time for arts organizations to heed the critique laid at their feet and make substantial change and commitment to our diverse and creative population.

  • Lee

    Indeed great reporting, Marianne, and MPR/Current certainly has the female “quota” covered … but curious as to how many people of color sit behind the microphones as “hosts” of their own shows at your stations?

    Given the region’s increasingly diverse population — one MPR will be pressed to cater to in coming years — this controversy might also lead to a timely and thoughtful examination of the MPR/Current host selection process. If not, at what peril are the stations that doesn’t do so, given the demographic changes transforming the nation and the Twin Cities?

    Demographics are changing dramatically, and if MPR doesn’t start making enormous efforts to reach out and engage listeners beyond aging, wealthy white people (THANK YOU FOR THE CURRENT!), it will be struggling to find listeners. It is absolutely in the self-interest of the MPR to work hard to make its audiences more inclusive.

    And the way you get a more inclusive listening audience is for them to be able to hear themselves (AGAIN, THANK YOU FOR THE CURRENT!) their stories and their perspectives over the airwaves.

    It’s not difficult to find a host of color. (Is it?) I’m certain there are lots and lots of wonderful hosts of color out there, I think you just have to decide that you want to have them at your stations, and find the one you want who best matches whatever projects you’re interested in.

    It is the responsibility of our cultural institutions – particularly those that find themselves in the position of controlling a substantial piece of the region’s resources like MPR with 43-station regional radio network serving ONE MILLION listeners EACH WEEK – to use their position to lead.

    Need to borrow some glass cleaner?

  • Anne Kelly

    I’m sorry but Mr. Dowling’s arguments are of one of the “old boys” club of theatre directors who simply want to do their shows for their egos.

    When the discussion of Women come’s up it’s lip service then back under the rug. Or, in his case defensiveness.

    I am a theatregoer and am tired of seeing, countless male centeric stories over and over again. Time for a huge change.


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  • Ben T

    Guthrie Corporation is here because of its community’s money. It’s sold to us as a community space — open to us a large part of the time. Yet, when the community strongly disapproves of the Guthrie’s programming, the community is wrong. How does that make any sense at all?

    Guthrie Corporation exists to serve its community — this doesn’t mean you must suddenly change your season when the people aren’t happy. But it does mean that you can deal with the community with a little respect. Don’t act like this outrage isn’t legitimate.

  • Richard Prince

    This discussion is perfectly warranted and a part of the vitality of the community and its arts institutions. I can say that since moving to Minneapolis in the mid 1980s and being a season ticket holder at the Guthrie, that under Joe Dowling’s leadership the theater has grown significantly and become more and more diverse. In the 1970s and 80s the mission seemed to be very narrow – a venue that offered productions of the classics by Shakespeare, the Greeks, Chekhov, Aristophanes, Terence and Plautus. etc. – basically all dead white men. Dowling has changed that radically, aided by having three stages and encouraging outside groups and local theater companies to work on its stages from Penumbra to Frank Theater to The Acting Company.

    Since the 1980s,the Guthrie has added to its season significantly more performances of plays by contemporary playwrights, women playwrights and directors on current themes, along with workshop productions and readings and hugely more diverse subjects.

    The Guthrie is not the Mixed Blood Theater, Playwrights Center, or Pillsbury House – they have their specific missions, but Dowling has reached out to them and gradually incorporated their work into the mission of the theater. Still, I am certain the case can be made for continuing in the direction of offering more contemporary, diverse, and vital theater.

  • Richard Prince

    And it is important for those who try to apply the mission of the Pillsbury House, Mixed Blood, or Penumbra to the Guthrie to understand they are delusional. Those theaters, their boards, and mission are distinctive, useful and make the community vibrant but they have a completely different scope and scale, tradition and purpose, practical and economic reality to answer to and for. And that is good. The Guthrie shouldn’t have exactly the same mission or vision as the Illusion Theater, Red Eye Collaborative, Frank Theater, Jungle Theater, or Interact Theater. It would be ridiculous to suggest that these groups, as meritorious and important as the are in our community, could ever support a theater center on scale with the Guthrie – with three stages, educational programs and function as a nation theater center and fill the seats almost every night. Sheer arrogance and self-conceit is being practiced by anyone in a so-called theater alliance to apply exactly the same curatorial mission to this whole range of non-profit organizations, their board members, and their subscribers. Let people do what they do best; provide critical feedback and suggestions; be respectful; and you may find your perceived enemy is actually in alliance with you providing vital functions you are overlooking in your deliberate blindness. Namaste

  • Tea Garden

    And there is no Guthrie Corporation – it is officially the Guthrie Foundation. Having problems relating to James Baldwin and Carlyle Brown because their just too much a part of the ole boys club? How about Tennessee Williams, is he just too whitebread for you?

  • Daniel Pinkerton

    Great article — the best summation of the controversy and Dowling’s unfortunate responses that I’ve seen. The situation might have been very different if Dowling had issued a more gracious and less defensive public response and if, as I’ve said elsewhere, the Guthrie didn’t consider anyone who made a critical remark to be the enemy. This makes dialogue very difficult.

  • Marianne Combs

    Lee – you raise good points – I can only speak for News. We have no ethnically diverse hosts; it’s a gap my bosses are well aware of.

  • Marianne Combs

    Tea Garden – thanks for your comment. I think what many of these artists/directors/playwrights are saying is that presenting the work of another theater on your stage is not the same thing as producing the work yourself. “The Amen Corner” is a Penumbra Theatre production. “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been …” is a production of Carlyle Brown and Company.

    One actor I interviewed put it this way: “Essentially the Guthrie gets to job in artists of color at a reduced pay rate and claim that they are satisfying the cultural portion of their mission without paying the artists what they’re worth. So even their “diversity” strategy smacks of racism, sexism and a few other isms.”

  • Tea Garden

    Marianne: You certainly have a talent for screwing the pooch and casting a darkness over goodness at every opportunity. True hack journalism. For the Guthrie to be working with local companies like Penumbra, Pillsbury House, Mixed Blood, Frank Theater Playwrights Center, Screenwriters’ Workshop has a TREMENDOUS benefits to the community. These partnerships are vital to professional development and growth. Why not throw in communism, socialism and rheumatism while you are listing all your “isms.” Inviting these companies onto the Guthrie stages is of incredible value not only to the companies, the Guthrie but also the entire building block infrastructure in the arts. But you force yourself to make steaming excrement of it, don’t you? Unbelievable. Trying to be offensive at every possible opportunity. Why? You’ve definitely lost all perspective on this story.

  • Marianne Combs

    Tea Garden – please do not confuse my quoting another person as me stating my own views. I just added the quote in the comment section to help you better understand why people are making a distinction between “presenting” and “producing.”

  • Anne Kelly

    Lest we all forget that over 50% of the population in this country is female? I rarely see 10% of women on the Guthrie stage, playwright, Actresses or Storylines. The Glaring fact nationally is that the Resident Theatres (Lort) do not represent it’s feminine population (or ticket buyers) in it’s stories, playwrights, or in it’s percentage of actresses onstage. For a company that get’s tax breaks from it’s community and this nation, as a not for profit, there seems to be a huge disregard to the public to which it is “supposed” to be serving. Those funds seem to be paying for Mr. Dowling to have a secure lifestyle in spite of the female artists around him who constantly are struggling. To be so dismissive and out of touch, Mr. Dowling…..Shame on you!.

  • DonReeder

    What a bunch of BS. I simply cannot believe what I am reading. You guys wouldn’t know equality if you saw it. You will always whine, squeal and cry. I simply haven’t got the time or inclination to go into detail in the manner of which I should, in just destroying all the BS that is presented in this pathetic article. If people or so called minorities can’t make it in this country then how on earth do you explain the Orientals. They couldn’t be more different in regards to their appearance and culture and they sure as Hell haven’t had it easy in this country but yet alas they are amongst the most successful of people in this country and they make up the bulk of the business owners and earn the highest wages here as well. They simply know what they need to do and do it. They understand the importance of hard work, and education and putting priorities first. So in other words what you are implying is the people that make up these these companies and groups are racist and sexist, BASED ON WHAT. Who are these people, I want names and examples of such. Show me these policies ect that states woman and minorities must be discriminated against. SHOW ME!!! Laws are in place and have been in place for literally DECADES that make it illegal to discriminate in such matters and you swear it still happens PROVE IT.

  • So glad to see this depth of coverage. While Dowling is in the hot seat, the issue goes far beyond his and the Guthrie’s choices. I was writing about how risk-averse the Guthrie was nearly 40 years ago.

    At some point theaters must fill seats. Unknown playwrights and new plays present a risk that becomes more difficult to embrace as theaters become larger and more institutional.

    Doesn’t some of the blame fall on audiences?

  • Don Reeder seems to have nailed it.

    Despite all the whining by everyone else, Orientals are making it in American theater, right?

  • Catherine Bush

    Wow… Interesting debate. I’m a playwright. I guess since I’m a woman that makes me a “female playwright” but I’d rather just be considered a playwright. I’d like my plays to be produced just because they’re good and because they serve an audience with thought-provoking story-telling that inspires the imagination. So don’t produce my work just because I’m a woman, okay? Produce my work because its good.

    I’m the resident playwright at Barter Theatre, a LORT theater in Abingdon, VA. I’ve had a lot of plays produced (thank you, Rick Rose!) – pretty great plays, in fact. But I bet you’ve never heard of me. So if Joe Dowling picked my play to produce, you might hesitate before you laid out money for a ticket. Even though I’m a woman. Even though you’re apparently clamoring for my work. Clamor away – but then you better show up at the theater with 10 friends in tow. Because seats must be filled, folks.

  • Marianne Combs

    Charlie – thanks for your comment. I’ll be working to examine audiences and their ticket buying habits next, although I’m still wrapping my head around the best way to approach that.

  • Richard Prince

    Theaters, for the most part, do extensive analysis of their audiences and their season subscribers and single ticket buying patterns. In this town nobody probably drills down deeper in their analysis than the Guthrie. They know the demographics for each and every production: men, women, age patterns, children, teenagers, and on and on. One big question for any performance arts venue is if your work or product is appealing to one segment (in other words there are more women than men in the theater) is why? What does it say about your programming (if more women are going to the Guthrie than men) and what they can do to broaden the appeal to the demographic that’s not currently sitting in the theater. When I hear people say “there are more women in the theater than men but the playwrights, directors, and actors are all men” than you might easily conclude it is women who like seeing the “theater of men.” Likewise, perhaps in order to attract more men or newer, younger, untraditional demographics to the theater, they might seek alternatives to their traditional make-up of programming, However, one can be sure that what theaters, administrators and directors know the most about is their core constituency and they are more likely to want to serve and satisfy their core than the alternatives. It makes so much sense to bring in outside theater groups and companies to work on one of their stages. Outside groups bring a knowledge of their core constituencies and audience the traditional theater-goers might not understand. Guthrie has a wider mix and larger audience certainly than it did 20 years ago. Still, it lives and dies on ticket sales and the ability to put people in the seats. As much as I don’t like Christmas Carol every single year it is the bell ringer, it brings more people to the theater more than any other play just as that stupid British advertising awards program at the Walker does every Holiday season. Those productions put money in the bank.

  • Marianne Combs

    Richard: I asked the Guthrie for what information it has on its audience demographics, but was declined on the basis that their sampling is too small. Quote: “We don’t have data of any sufficient sample size to be of worth in a journalistic piece—nothing remotely approaching last year’s total audience of 422,000.”