What do Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”), Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”) and Emmy nominee Morena Baccarin (“Homeland”) have in common?
Before becoming charismatic movie stars, each spent a respective summer honing their craft at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Now, a new generation of future stars are returning to the theater for The Guthrie Experience, the company’s graduate actor training program.
The program, which serves as a bridge between the school and the professional theater world, has attracted a myriad of talented performers from across the country since it was launched by the late Kenneth H. Washington in 1997. He worked in tandem with Marcela Lorca, now artistic director of the Ten Thousand Things Theater, from the beginning, and Lorca directed it after Washington’s death.
Guthrie Experience returned this year after a four-year hiatus, with 10 performers hailing from venues including Brown University, University of California, Los Angeles and The Juilliard School. Abigail C. Onwunali of Yale University is the associate director of “Valor,” the showcase production that caps off the experience and runs Wednesday through Sunday at the Guthrie.
The program has had a profound impact on the careers of dozens of performers both in theater and in the field, Guthrie director Joseph Haj said in a statement. He added that it is “an absolute joy to welcome these dynamic artists to our theater community and [to] see this vital program reappear with ingenuity under [director] Maija Garcia.”
García, a respected theater artist who served as creative director for the nationwide tour of “Fela” and choreographed Haj’s memorable production of “West Side Story” at the Guthrie, is the director of education and vocational training at the theater. She is the third leader of the Guthrie Experiment.
This year’s show differs from past years in that it is not a company-designed work.
“Joe asked, what is iconic about this theater?” said García, alluding to the Guthrie’s reputation as the home of the classics. “So, I said, challenge accepted.”
She looked at the usual suspects including the Greeks, the Bard and Brecht before coming across a translation of a work from the Spanish Golden Age. It was “Valor, Agravio y Mujer” by Ana Caro de Mallén (known as Ana Caro), a Spanish contemporary of Shakespeare.
Born into slavery and adopted by a wealthy family, Ana Caro became one of the most notable Spanish poets and playwrights of her time. The piece that we will see under the name “Valor” had been translated at UCLA for an initiative called Diversifying the Classics. García found the title used in this translation, “The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs”, a bit awkward.
García requested and was granted permission to rename it “Valor”, with a Spanish pronunciation but meaning the same as in English. Ana Caro’s original Spanish title “opens your imagination” with its three overarching concepts, García said.
A woman with power at the center
“Bravery generally means courage in the face of battle and is not a word commonly associated with women,” García said. The second word, “Agravio”, usually means indignation and grievance. “Mujer”, of course, is Spanish for woman.
“The way Ana Caro presents these concepts, we land on ‘woman’. So it’s almost like, ‘And what is she going to do about it.’ “
The “it” is a betrayal. For “Valor” is an honor revenge comedy featuring a rare woman with full agency and power at the center. In the play, Leonor seeks revenge on Don Juan, who seduced her and promised to marry her before ruthlessly rejecting her.
Leonor dresses as a man, called Leonardo, who in turn beats Don Juan at his own game. Leonor is also hers.
Consumed by jealousy, Don Juan recognizes his misdeeds and restores Leonor’s honor by marrying her.
“When you first read the play, and even when you first see it, you think this guy is a jerk, why is she picking on him,” García said. But she sees it as an appeal to the so-called cancel culture and the restorative justice movement.
In some African societies, when someone commits an offence, instead of being deported, the offender is given the opportunity to acknowledge their wrongdoing in a public way — almost like mini-truth and reconciliation commissions, García said.
“In our modern age…it’s so easy to cancel someone, to kick them out,” García continued, adding that “Valor” is exciting because it’s a classic that speaks to contemporary audiences even as it expands the cannon.
“Not only are we reintroducing an acclaimed playwright from Spain’s Golden Age who transcended her place and time, but we’re also interrogating the play and refreshing it for our times,” García said. “It’s very exciting.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday; 1pm Sat & Sun.
Where: Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
Tickets: $20. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org
Marcela Lorca, who helped run the Guthrie Experience for more than 20 years, spoke about some of the famous actors who have attended the Graduate Actor Training Program.
Famous for: Oscars for “Moonlight” and “Green Book”.
At the Guthrie: “A long walk.”
He came to the program wondering if he really wanted to be an actor.
“Mahershala was a very special actor – physically expressive with an incredibly big heart.”
Ryan Michelle Bathe
Famous for: Play an FBI agent in “The Endgame”. Was also in “First Wives Club”.
At the Guthrie: “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It”.
Ryan and Sterling K. Brown were a couple when they arrived. “She’s extraordinarily talented, deeply adventurous and very intelligent. She was hired immediately to be part of Guthrie’s productions.”
Sterling K. Brown
Famous for: Emmy winner for “This Is Us”.
At the Guthrie: “Intimate clothes.”
“Sterling is a singularly talented actor with a wide range and emotional availability…he’s really there with you. He’s very warm, very skilled. He can go to the dark depths and be a light comedian. You get meaning with him. that there’s always more, that he’s not playing all the cards, that he has something else to play, so you’re waiting for that.”
Famous for: Matriarch Vivian Banks in “Bel-Air”.
At the Guthrie: “Intimate clothes.”
“Cassie is so full of life and talent. She’s exuberant, a great comedian and just a lovely person. I remember her so fondly. Twenty years ago, actors of color weren’t as famous as they are now. One of the doors that Ken Washington opened, and we both really care about bringing together diverse teams.”
Famous for: “Firefly” and “The Endgame”.
At the Guthrie: “Blood wedding.”
“Morena was very young when she came to the Guthrie – she was still at Juilliard – but she was so talented. She was in the same band as Mahershala, so she worked with a great team. We did this legendary and play magic, “A Long Walk”, about a people lost in a desert world who creatively dealt with many issues of race. She was so talented that as soon as she graduated, I invited her to play the bride in ‘Blood Wedding .’ “
Famous for: Was the husband of Eva Longoria’s character in ‘Desperate Housewives’. Also played Selena Quintanilla Pérez’s father in Netflix’s “Selena: The Series.”
At the Guthrie: “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “An Enemy of the People”.
“Ricardo worked with Mixed Blood Theatre. One of the things that was important to me was introducing them to the Twin Cities communities.”
Famous for: “How I Met Your Mother.”
At the Guthrie: Showcase of the Guthrie Experience.
“Josh had this big show and it’s huge. One of the things that happens with actors who go to these big universities is that sometimes they come out with a lot of debt. If they’re offered a TV show , they have to take it because they have these huge debts. One of our goals was also to affirm and reaffirm a love of theater so that they know they have choices in the years to come.