Sharing Words from SMU’s Gretchen Smith on the Guthrie

Joe Dowling, the Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota, interviewed on NPR, said this about his all male season at the Guthrie:

“Let me address the playwrights first. We’re largely a classics theater – that’s what we do and I may be reading the wrong books but I find it difficult to see – because of social history in the 17th, 18th, 19th and indeed early 20th century – which are termed ‘classic plays’ – women playwrights emerged who would be able to fill large theaters.”

Gretchen Smith, Associate Professor, Head of Theatre Studies at SMU – Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas responded and I found her reply so useful that I asked her if she would pass it on to the lafpi.

Here is what she said:
Yes, I see his point, and it is the point made not only in professional theatre but community theatre and university theatre, too. It is, at its heart, this: Dowling can’t think of female playwrights whose work fits the definition of “classic” and “would be able to fill large theaters.” Both these things must be so for Dowling to move forward.

As I see and hear it, here are the various sides of this problem:

Dowling (and others) don’t know enough plays by women or other minorities to evaluate alongside plays by people like Miller, Shakespeare, Ibsen, or Simon (all great playwrights who are also Euro-Centric White Guys). His knowledge of the global dramatic literature repertoire is limited to The Canon – the classical plays he claims the Guthrie uses as foundation and that their audience expects and will buy tickets to.


Dowling (and others) can’t imagine that there are plays he doesn’t know that are as good as those by these Euro-Centric White Guys that would fill seats in large theatres. He is focusing on economic survival for his theatre based on old-style management models of the 1940s-1970s and known quantities: the drawing power for high schools, universities, and subscribers in Big Plays by familiar playwrights–again, like Miller, Shakespeare, Simon, and Ibsen. He assumes that if there were plays as good as The Canon they would be in The Canon and he would know them.


Dowling (and others) face much more direct impact from Boards about things like subscriber bases and budgets (and the Board members even more limited knowledge and desire for risk) than from non-subscribers or minority playwrights/directors they don’t employ. In other words, he has a job on the line and it may be contingent on filling seats, not risk and experimentation in the season, not addressing diversity or bigger issues than the $10 empty seat.

And a lot of men simply can’t imagine finding a story by women centered on women as entertaining and “relatable” as a story by and about men. I understand that: I’ve been living with the flip side of this argument for four decades.

Let’s face it: probably one of the things holding Dowling back is that the Guthrie audience wouldn’t automatically turn up for a Rachel Crothers play the way they would for an Arthur Miller play. And as long as Boards and artistic directors like Dowling think the money paid for tickets is coming from men, why change? And as long as audiences don’t see anything different, why ask for plays by women?

Someone is going to have to break down and take a risk. And market the hell out of their risk.

I’d love to see an all-female classic season at the Guthrie–or any other major regional theatre–as an artistic and marketing risk taken all the way. Go BIG. With an ad and marketing campaign aimed at educating subscribers as well as entertaining them.

Female playwrights, female directors, female designers, female performers of note, female-centered stories that embrace diversity. Aggressively marketed to universities, high school English classes, women’s groups of all kinds. Perhaps even marketed as bucking the trend of anti-woman, risk-free theatre. And then not treat it as one-of-a-kind pink pony but business as usual.

It won’t happen at the Guthrie as long as Dowling’s non-risk seasons fill seats: he has no incentive to change, apparently, either from his Board, his audiences, or his own internal mission/artistic vision of theatre. I don’t know what the answer is, beyond educate a new generation of future artistic directors to do better, and don’t buy tickets to the Guthrie, and let the Board and Dowling know why.

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