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Two actors sitting on stage.

U student Elizabeth Stahlmann with fellow Guthrie actor and U alum Jay Goede in a scene from "The Real Thing" by Tom Stoppard and directed by Joe Dowling.

U and the new Guthrie

B.F.A. actor training students learn tricks of the trade at the riverfront Guthrie

By Pauline Oo

Sept. 1, 2006

Minus the black lipstick, big hair with streaks of brilliant red, and laced-up platform boots, actress Elizabeth Stahlmann is virtually unrecognizable at the post-play discussion. The University of Minnesota junior is making her Guthrie stage debut as the 16-year-old punk daughter in "The Real Thing," a two-and-a-half hour sly examination of the mysteries of love and marriage. The play, which runs through Sept. 24, is the first production on the McGuire Proscenium Stage in the new Guthrie Theater by the river.

"Who knows what I'll actually do when I graduate," says Stahlmann, a student in the Department of Theatre Art and Dance's bachelor of fine arts actor training program. "But right now, I am learning a lot about myself and theater and seeing if it all makes sense, if I want to do this [for a living.]"

Over the summer, Stahlmann has been performing or rehearsing almost six days a week at the Guthrie alongside seasoned theater and film actors Jay Goede, Sally Wingert and Kathryn Meisle. "Sally [a 20-year veteran with the Guthrie] is a huge inspiration," says Stahlmann. "Through her, I can see what it's like to live life fully as an actress."

Rounding out "The Real Thing" cast are two recent graduates from the U's actor training program: Jonas Goslow, who last appeared in "Hamlet" (the Guthrie's final production at its former home on Vineland Place), and Mike Rasmussen, who starred in "Antigone" at Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

The chance to rub shoulders with and learn from high-caliber or award-winning Guthrie actors is certainly a draw of the U's actor training program, which emerged in 1999 with the appointment of Joe Dowling as the Guthrie artistic director. The four-year program is unique in the country because of its working partnership with an internationally recognized theater, the Guthrie. The collaboration builds on a decades-old relationship. One of the reasons Tyrone Guthrie chose Minneapolis for his flagship theater 37 years ago was because of the exciting artistic and academic influence of the University.

Auditions are held each year--typically attracting 400-500 people--in Minnesota, as well as in cities such as San Francisco, New York City and Chicago, and the program only accepts 20 students a year.

Senior actors on stage

From Oct. 26-Nov. 11, University Theatre will present Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" and "A Doll's House" at the Rarig Center. Both plays will feature the senior company of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program. The plays will be presented in conjunction with other Ibsen-related events in the Twin Cities to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ibsen's death. Ibsen was largely responsible for the rise of modern realistic drama, and he is believed to be the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare.

Both the U and the Guthrie devote staff time to running the rigorous program, which combines a solid liberal arts curriculum with specific training in text analysis, voice, dialects, movement and other performance skills. As part of the program, students spend every Monday at the Guthrie, where they meet with artists, directors and stage managers. They will now also have the opportunity to use the 250-seat Dowling Studio (aka the black-box theatre or lab space) for productions.

"Proximity is great," says program director Judy Bartl of the new Guthrie location in the Mill City District within walking distance of the Twin Cities campus. "It's easier [for our students and faculty to get there for meetings.] We also have a lot of freshmen who are ushers there, as well as students involved in special events and going to opening events."

The U-Guthrie partnership does not guarantee a place on the Guthrie stage. Eligible students audition alongside other hopeful actors for roles. "There are a lot of factors that come into consideration before we allow students to even audition for shows, [and these include] how they are doing academically and what is their artistic progress like," explains Bartl.

"We've been very fortunate that Joe Dowling and the Guthrie Theater are very responsive to hiring our students," she adds. The Guthrie had to negotiate a special contract with the actors union that allows four current students each year to have speaking parts in Guthrie performances. In their first year, 8 of the 15 graduates of the class of 2004 worked in at least one show on the Guthrie season.

"We've now graduated three classes of students," says Bartl. Last Thursday, Bartl welcomed 20 more students to the program. "The growth for this program has been phenomenal, and when I look at what our graduates are doing it's pretty incredible. We have students now working on both coasts and in Shakespeare plays all over the country."

Guthrie's archives at the U

In June, the new $125 million, 250,000-square-foot Guthrie Theater opened overlooking the Mississippi River. French architect Jean Nouvel designed the indigo building, his first project in North America. To learn more about the Guthrie's 43-year history, visit the free Guthrie exhibit at the U's Elmer L. Andersen Library on the West Bank. The exhibit, which runs through Oct. 27, features rarely seen photographs, set models, costume sketches, and early correspondence from the Guthrie's archive, which has been part of the University Libraries' collection since 1965.

For example, Santino Fontana, from the class of 2004--the program's first batch of graduates--is now a busy actor in New York. (This past spring, at 23, Fontana became the youngest Hamlet in the Guthrie's history.) 2004 graduate Leah Curney currently has a season contract with American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wis. 2005 graduates Elliot Eustis and Eric Holm founded a theater company, Shakespeare on the Cape, in Provincetown, MA, and hired several of their B.F.A. colleagues. (The company will perform "Romeo and Juliet" and "As You Like It" in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie, Sept. 16-25.)

"For a program this new, I think that's quite a testimonial to the training that we're providing," adds Bartl.

Further reading Fortune far from outrageous Class acts