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Life After Joe

Should the Guthrie hire a woman to replace artistic director Joe Dowling?

Life After Joe
Photo by Mark Vancleave

The Guthrie Theater is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer, and while it’s certainly an occasion to acknowledge the triumphs of the past—of which there are many—it is also a prompt to look toward the future.

At the end of the 2014–15 season, artistic director Joe Dowling, who will by that time have guided the good ship Guthrie for 20 years, will hand the wheel over to someone else. There will be intense pressure, particularly from the local theater community, to hire a woman as the next artistic director. Only men have held the post thus far, so the prevailing sentiment is: After 50 years of testosterone at the top, isn’t it time for a little estrogen?

It may well be. Eighty percent of the plays produced in this country are written by men, and women at every level of theater—actors, directors, artistic directors—are underrepresented by a wide margin. If the Guthrie were to appoint a woman at the top, it would send a strong message that the tide may indeed be turning.

But there is another important question: Should the next Guthrie artistic director’s gender play a role in the selection—and if so, how much?

After all, the job of Guthrie artistic director requires a unique set of skills. He or she must have a deep respect for, and understanding of, the classics, of course—but also have an artistic sensibility that’s populist enough to keep the seats filled, adventurous enough to keep things interesting, and idiosyncratic enough to allow for the occasional inspired failure. In person, the artistic director must possess the political instincts of a senator, the social acumen of a duchess, and the uncanny vision of a sorcerer. His or her tolerance for scrutiny must be ridiculously high, because the scrutiny itself can be quite ridiculous. The candidate must enjoy addressing the public—press, patrons, donors, etc.—but can’t be undone by the pressure to please everyone, which is an impossible, thankless, and essential part of the job. The words “community” and “diversity” must roll off the person’s lips like a kiss, and he or she cannot be perceived as an “outsider” who doesn’t “fit in,” even if the candidate’s only exposure to Minnesota culture is through a Coen brothers movie.

When Joe Dowling was hired, he was seen as the antidote to Garland Wright, a brilliant artist who didn’t hide his disdain for the public part of the job. Dowling does everything well, and if the board of directors had its way it’d clone him and give him another 20 years. But unless some remarkable scientific breakthroughs happen in the next two years, that’s not going to happen. Someone is going to have to replace him. Or at least try.

If the best candidate for the job happens to be a woman, that would be fantastic—but securing the Guthrie’s artistic future must always be the highest priority. And if the best person for the job happens to be a man, that’s not necessarily a tragedy.

After all, a recent Princeton study found that one of the major forces in American theater that prevents more women from getting their plays produced is—wait for it—female artistic directors and literary managers. As it turns out, even women prefer plays written by men. How’s that for inequality?

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