Photo by Cameron Wittig
Joe Dowling at the Guthrie
Joe Dowling in the Guthrie’s “yellow box” studio.
After 20 years at the helm of the Guthrie Theater, director Joe Dowling is stepping down. His replacement, Joseph Haj, of University of North Carolina’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, officially starts on July 1. An Irishman with a jocular wit, Dowling took over during a period when the theater was struggling financially, but eventually led a $125 million capital campaign to build the iconic blue building along the Mississippi River that is now, in Dowling’s words, “the Guthrie of the 21st century.”
What are you doing after you retire? Are you escaping to an island? And if so, will it be a hot island or a cold island?
Well, it will be an island: Manhattan. We’ve had a place in New York for some years, so that’s where we’re going to base ourselves. We’ll be back here fairly often because we have grandchildren here.
Are you going to continue to work in New York?
I hope to continue teaching and directing. I have no firm plans. I’m directing a play next year in Dublin, but other than that, I’m going to take life as it comes.
When you took the artistic director’s job 20 years ago, what was your biggest fear?
I could say the winter, but that would be too easy. I came into a theater that had sort of lost its way. Not through any fault of my predecessor [Garland Wright], whose ambitions and skills were remarkable, but the facility and the programming didn’t always match. So one of the first things I realized was that in order to move the theater forward, there was going to have to be more than one space to fill our artistic ambitions, as well as fill the box office. So I suppose my biggest fear was, how do you fill a 1,300-seat house and at the same time stay artistically ambitious?
Was building an entirely new facility on your mind at the time, or did that come later?
No, not in the remotest, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I had no such intention 20 years ago that we would ever build a new theater. What was a consideration: How could we build the Lab into a second space? Was there an appetite for mixing up the thrust programming? Those kinds of practical things, but the bigger picture—the vision—took time to grow.
At the time, it seemed as if some of your early plays fit well on the thrust stage, while others—well, you had to go to exorbitant lengths to make them work.
There was a myth perpetuated by our founder, Tyrone Guthrie, that every play—no matter when, where, or how it was written—could work on a thrust stage, and it was taken as a kind of gospel: the gospel according to St. Tyrone. And nobody dared challenge it. But it absolutely isn’t true. There are many plays that require a proscenium stage, and there are many plays that require smaller studio sort of space—and you simply can’t do them on a 1,300-seat thrust stage. The reality is that the thrust stage was created for the plays of the Greeks, medieval plays, Shakespeare, and not much beyond. Once you get to the 18th century, they put it in a box—called a proscenium arch. Sometimes those plays opened out in a different way, and made for some great theater. And Guthrie actors have learned how to move on that stage to bring the rest of the audience in. But it doesn’t work for every play.
What’s your favorite spot in the new building? Is there a place you go to think or escape?
My favorite spot in the building is what we call the “yellow box” up in the studio, where you look over the city. I remember when we were building it, [the architect] Jean Nouvel said, “This building will be for young people, no?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “Then we must make this view optimistic.” So, even on a gray day, there’s brightness up there. And I like the idea that a theater would have a sense of optimism.
It’s definitely one of the best views around. In the bridges and flour mills and parks, you can see the whole history of the city from up there.
I remember when then-mayor R.T. Rybak toured the building shortly before we opened. He went up there and he said, “I see my own city in a totally new way. I’ve never seen it like this before.” There are a lot of people with these views in the condominiums around here, but you pay a million dollars for those views. Here, the public can have it for free. And I think seeing that, and seeing Gold Medal Park, which Bill McGuire created with great generosity and foresight—all of it together is what makes this area so exciting.
What’s your favorite artistic space?
As a theater person, there’s nothing better than working on those big shows, like The Crucible or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the thrust. There’s nothing more thrilling for a director than that space.
When I stepped into the new theater for the first time, having spent so much time in the old one, it was quite a surreal moment. I remember thinking, wow, they’ve recreated the theater here—just a little bit better.
It was never our intention in moving the building to destroy the Guthrie’s history. Quite the opposite. One of the reasons that both outside and inside the building there are etchings and pictures of productions was that, from day one, I said very clearly that it was about expanding the vision rather than replacing the vision. And it needed expansion, because of the way in which the theater world itself was changing, and the necessity to present new work side-by-side with old.
Were you concerned about a regional theater being able to support all that work?
I have a kind of a loathing of the term “regional theater,” because it’s used very often in a pejorative sense. It’s patronizing when people say, “Well, it’s good for regional theater.” When, in fact, some of the best theater I’ve seen in this country has been in “the regions.” So one of the things I wanted to get away from was the idea that this was a regional theater. Because if you look at the word “region,” it’s implying a center, and I don’t see a center for not-for-profit theater in New York. It’s a center for commercial theater, but not-for-profit theater is spread throughout the country, and the work that’s done all over the country is a kind of collective national theater. We all use the same directors, the same actors by and large, we use the same designers, and do similar plays. So it struck me that one of the things we should try to do here, at the center of the country, was to create what I was calling a National Center for Theater Art and Theater Education—though I realize that doesn’t roll very elegantly off the tongue.
Are there things that, in retrospect, you would have done differently, or wish you hadn’t done in the first place?
I agonize over every production and all its flaws and failures. I rarely celebrate success. Things are half empty for me rather than half full. I don’t know that I would have done much differently in terms of the new building. I think we got it right, by and large. It’s an iconic building, that has really helped shape the city in a different way. And internally, it works. When you get people like Mark Rylance saying that compared to the Guthrie, the National Theater of London is like a shed, you’ve done something right. After leaving the Abbey Theatre, I swore that if I were ever to take a job like that again, I would walk out on the final day with absolutely no regrets. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.
It is the nature of theater, isn’t it, that it can never be perfect? That it’s ephemeral? So you have to let it go when it’s over and not look back too much?
Yes, and it’s painful to close a show when you know that people are loving it, and it works in the moment. Theater is completely ephemeral, and when it’s over, it’s over.
What about your management of the Guthrie do you think you deserve more credit for than you get?
I get a lot of credit and a lot of blame—it goes with the territory. I don’t think I deserve any more credit than I get. One of the things that has been very special here is the teamwork of a lot of people. Yes, I’ve been the leader, but a leader supported by amazing people. John Miller Stephany, for instance, has transformed the way the Guthrie is seen by the theater community here. When I came here, maybe 60 percent of the cast would have been local, but now we’re up to about 85 or 90 percent of the talent being local.
Have you achieved everything you’ve wanted to here? If not, what have you left on the table?
I have no regrets, but the expansion of work in the Dowling Studio is something that I had to let go of. Because of the economic downturn, work in the studio was the major casualty. I don’t want to suggest that the work up there hasn’t been good—it has. We have brought in a number of local companies and given them support, and that was something we promised we would do. But the idea I had originally, that we would commission and produce new work in that space, hasn’t happened. Perhaps my successor will have better luck with that.
What’s the most difficult part of your job?
The most difficult part is that you know that your decisions, both on a big broad scale—in choice of plays and directors—and on a smaller scale, will affect so many people. The artistic side of this job is a piece of cake; it’s the daily business concerns that take their toll.
During your tenure, there have been occasional flare-ups over various issues of diversity, inclusion, exclusion, gender bias, etc. Do you see these types of dialogues as part of a healthy theater community, or as criticisms that are misguided and/or unfair?
I think you can take a snapshot of any organization at a given time and define that organization fairly or unfairly by the snapshot that you take. In 2012, when those issues rose to their height, we were trying more new work than ever before, in all three theaters. And they were wrong at the time, and they are still wrong. The idea that we have somehow had a gender bias in this organization—nothing could be further from the truth.
What about accusations of lack of diversity?
At the time that we were being accused of lack of diversity, we had on our thrust stage a production by Lou Bellamy (Penumbra Theater) of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, and in the studio we had a play by Carlyle Brown, Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been. I think our entire industry is evolving in ways that are changing the way we look at everything. But to say that there is a bias here or there, or that we lack the willingness to engage with minorities—it just isn’t true.
Why did it take so long for the Guthrie to embrace St. Paul’s most famous playwright, August Wilson?
When I first came here, people told me that one of the first questions you are going to get is why doesn’t the Guthrie do August Wilson? So I began to ask that question myself, and it became very clear to me why. The fact is, the mainstay of the Penumbra repertoire at that time was August Wilson. If the Guthrie started to do August Wilson, would people go see Penumbra’s productions? This was Garland Wright’s concern too. So what I did—which I thought was sensible—was to invite Penumbra to come in and play it here. Fences was done in the summer of 1997, and it was as if Reagan and Gorbachev had suddenly met. Much of the discussion around it was nonsense, though. Since then, we’ve partnered with Penumbra on several shows, and Lou Bellamy himself has called it a new paradigm in how a community theater and regional theater can work together.
Why can’t the Guthrie get a play on Broadway?
[Laughs] Because we don’t want to.
I always thought that was one of the institution’s ambitions.
No. There were certain productions, like Little House on the Prairie, which we hosted, but wasn’t ours, that aspired to commercial theater. But when you talk about regrets, let me be blunt—one of my regrets was dabbling in that whole development for Broadway thing, which we did for Little House, and also with Roman Holiday and a couple of other things. But I have no interest in the Guthrie having a play on Broadway, and nor should anyone. And I’ll tell you why: The very foundation of the theater was a result of the feeling that Broadway was not the end all and be all of American theater. The for-profit world is fantastic when it’s vibrant and alive—but the not-for-profit world, like the Guthrie, we have to be able to speak to our community, and once you say we’re doing this show with a view to taking it to New York, you immediately start using your audience as a tryout audience, and this is not a tryout audience. This is a very sophisticated theater audience.
What advice are you giving Joseph Haj about living in Minnesota?
Joe was here in the ’90s as a member of Garland Wright’s company, so he knows this community. My advice to anyone trying to take on this job is, try and get a good night’s sleep, because you’re going to need it.
Joe Dowling’s final play, Juno and the Paycock, runs through June 28.