Guthrie Theater issues “Open Call” for new audiences: Will Gen Y fall for Big Blue?


“There’s nothing new about what we’re doing,” Dianne Brennan, director of development at the Guthrie Theater, said to me on November 2 at a party in the Dowling Studio. “When Sir Tyrone came to Minnesota, John Cowles was in his 30s.” She was referring to the mixing of people from the worlds of business and art, a process that resulted in the company’s 1963 founding and that the Guthrie is hoping to foster in a new generation with its Open Call program. 

The Dowling Studio event was the official kick-off for the program, though what precisely was being kicked off remains, more or less intentionally, a little vague. Open Call is an audience development program roughly analogous to the “young professionals” programs maintained by other large nonprofits—from the Minnesota Opera to the Minnesota Zoo—with a semi-autonomous board that has its own funding and plans to create programming associated with Guthrie shows. 

Part of that programming, starting with A Christmas Carol, will be the standard young-professional-program package: discount tickets plus a party. Unlike comparable programs, though, Open Call isn’t explicitly tied to a demographic group (“You should come to our Tempo events!” a Minnesota Opera representative once told me. “We only start aging people out at 40”); instead, the program is more generally aimed to attract prospective audience members who don’t think theater is their thing.

In a video invitation to the kick-off event, Carl Atiya Swanson—an Open Call board member—makes that case explicitly. “The Guthrie’s not just a place where your grandmother comes to see A Christmas Carol,” says Carl. “There will be people here who you want to meet. People like Chastity Brown. People like the DJs Lady Heat. Designers. Actors from the Guthrie. People who are interested in theater. People who, after a couple of our signature cocktails, if you want to get into a deep discussion about who does theater best in the Twin Cities, we’re not going to stop you.”

Theater artist Paige Collette, at the party, put it another way. “It’s like Pancake Time, but with booze.” Pancake Time was a recent gathering of dozens of theater artists at Bedlam Theatre’s Seward space, coordinated by Samantha Johns in response to a hot discussion, regarding Twin Cities theater, that erupted on her Facebook profile.

Pancake Time on the Guthrie’s ninth floor? Well, theoretically. In reality, the Guthrie event was more party than discussion, and the crowd was less Seward than North Loop. Whereas Bedlam has offered discount tickets to patrons who bike to their shows, the Open Call kick-off featured a promotional partnership with Uber: invitees (including me) enjoyed free limo rides to the party, and as Chastity Brown began her set, we sipped martinis under crystal chandeliers.

As a party, the event was certainly a success: the studio remained crowded well after most attendees had used their two free drink tickets, and it was certainly a much younger crowd than one typically encounters at the Guthrie. Though it wasn’t Pancake Time, independent theater artists were indeed in evidence: in addition to Carl (a member of the Savage Umbrella theater company, and formerly of Lamb Lays With Lion) and Paige, I spotted Brant Miller and Jason Ballweber of Four Humors, adventurous actress Elise Langer, and Fringe-favorite writer and peformer Rob Callahan.

That’s significant because it suggests that Big Blue understands why companies like Bedlam, Savage Umbrella, and Four Humors don’t need young-audience development groups: their programming is dynamic and accessible. (If anything, those companies need older-audience development programs.) That’s ultimately what audience development will come down to for the Guthrie: programming development. In theater as well as media, content is still king. They won’t necessarily come if you build it, but they’re sure as hell not going to come to The Sunshine Boys.

The Open Call program debut coincides with other hopeful signs at the Guthrie, including a new “30 Below” program that makes it easier for teens and 20-somethings to buy discounted tickets. The company has also recently promoted Lauren Ignaut to director of studio theater programming, with an eye to increasingly using the Dowling Studio space to build relationships with outside companies—and the new Guthrie audiences that come with those companies.

This is all taking place against the backdrop of tense labor disputes at the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Whatever comes of those disputes, their existence demonstrates the stark reality of the perilous financial situation faced by orchestras across America, many of which are likely to shutter in coming years. The most loyal and enthusiastic demographic for classical music is disappearing, and all the signature cocktails in the world aren’t going to convince Generations X and Y to love Mozart like our grandparents did.

The Baby Boomers now running institutions like the Guthrie are likely looking over at the picketing cellists and remembering a line from a song by their own generational icon, Bob Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Correction: This post originally contained a misspelling of Dianne Brennan’s first name, and misidentified John Cowles. These errors have been corrected.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.