Sir Tyrone Guthrie's open 'thrust' stage began in 1936 during a production of his Hamlet for
'...the Old Vic Company which was to appear at Elsinore by invitation of the Danish government, out-of-doors, but the weather was so inclement that the production was to be cancelled: Guthrie and the cast thought this would be a shame and their hosts agreed that an improvised production would take place in the ballroom of the hotel where the actors were staying. Guthrie and helpers set about arranging chairs in a semi-circle and the actors, once they had figured where they would enter and exit for the various scenes, were left to get on with it. It worked so well that it demonstrated for Guthrie that Shakespeare and certain other ‘classics’ would be better accommodated ‘in the round’ and ‘in the three-quarters’ as they had been in the 16th century. He and others subsequently brought a proposal to the Old Vic Board for a new building in London in that shape; the proposal was dismissed, Guthrie continued to look for places where the idea could be properly advanced.'
Guthrie followed through with the open stage Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1948 where he was invited to produce a little-known Scottish play, The Three Estates, an edited and shortened version of the 1540 original, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites. The editor and dramatist of the play, Robert Kemp (1908-1967), suggested that it should be staged in the Edinburgh Assembly Hall, with spectators seated on benches around a raised stage.
A few years later, in 1952, Guthrie was invited to produce a Shakespeare festival season in the aptly named town of Stratford, Ontario, Canada. The festival began in a tent, the audience seated on three sides around a platform stage. By 1957 the tent had been replaced with a permanent theatre featuring the open thrust stage, which had been designed by Guthrie's collaborator, Tanya Moiseiwitsch (1914-2003). See link below.
On 5 May, 1963, after four years of looking around and finally settling on a place, the Minneapolis Repertory Theatre, later the Guthrie Theatre, opened with the eponymous director's rather long production of Hamlet. Importantly, the theatre featured a Guthrie open thrust stage, the battle for which was won by Guthrie and his collaborators, Moiseiwitsch and actor, Douglas Campbell (1922-2009) against the architect of the building, Ralph Rapson (1914-2008 - then Professor of Architecture at the University of Minnesota). See links below.
Guthrie and his collaborators had good reason to believe in the benefit of the open stage, which he outlined in A New Theatre:
'...the proscenium stage is deliberately designed to encourage the audience to believe that events on stage are "really" taking place, to accept a palpable fiction for fact; whereas the open stage discourages "illusion" and emphasizes that a play is a ritual in which the audience is invited to participate. The audience is so arranged that spectators can see on another around, and beyond, the more brightly lighted stage. This certainly does not encourage illusion. You can hardly be expected to believe that you are right there at the Court of King Arthur when just over Sir Lancelot's left ear you can descry, dim but unmistakable, the Halversons, who keep the corner shop. This, however, does emphatically, and I think valuably, imply that theatre-going is a sociable, a shared experience, and that the audience, unlike the audience for movies or television, has an active part to play, has to do its share towards creating the performance, can make or mar the occasion.' (pp. 69-70).
It was important to all involved in the design of the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis, that the entire audience felt at ease and at one, which was, according to Guthrie, 'brought about by not allowing those in the cheaper seats or less fashionable seats to feel that they are only second-class citizens.' (p. 70). Therefore,
'...the second class citizen problem was ingeniously solved by blurring the division between upstairs and down, between orchestra and balcony' by installing high, acutely angled asymmetrical seating, creating clear sightlines for the entire audience, and which followed the asymmetrical shape of the stage (p. 71). (See photograph).
Various iterations of Guthrie's open thrust stage were used in several theatres during the following decades: Baumont-Lincoln 1965; Perth, Australia 1969; the Young Vic 1970; The Crucible 1971 (designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch); the Globe 1997; and of course, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, London 2011. So, not only was Sir Tyrone Guthrie 'the most important theatre director today' according to the New York Times quoted on the inside cover of A New Theatre, but he was also a director with a keen sense of the importance of the audience, and a clear vision on how to achieve that all important symbiotic relationship between the viewer and the actor through the design of the open thrust stage and its associated seating.
For more on Sir Tyrone Guthrie's life and career
For further information on Tanya Moiseiwitsch
For further information on Douglas Campbell
For further information on Ralph Rapson
For more information on Susan Butler (née Guthrie) see The Butler Gallery and the Irish Times Susan Butler Opinion Piece
Photograph of the Guthrie open thrust stage, Minneapolis, 1963, was taken by the author of this article for The Guthrie Gazette, Dr Éimear O'Connor, in the V&A Museum, London, March 2023, and reproduced herein with the kind permission of the V&A Museum, London. The author would like to acknowledge and thank Christopher Fitz-Simon for his insight and knowledge of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, his family, and his career.