Director Joe Dowling muses about the Guthrie's monumental 50th year

Joe Dowling
Ann Marsden

FALL ARTS CONTENT: Critics' PicksBooks: Cheryl StrayedDance: Penelope Freeh and Jocelyn Hagen's Slippery FishTheater: Guthrie's Joe Dowling

Meeting Joe Dowling in his office at the new Guthrie Theater along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis is meeting someone absolutely comfortable in his position.

And why not? Dowling has been in charge of the venerable theater since 1995 and is under contract for three more years. He has overseen a major shift in the theater's venue, moving it from its original home alongside the Walker Art Center to the three-theater, Jean Nouvel-designed facility on Second Street. From his office, it's a quick journey to backstage of either the proscenium or the thrust stages, where the public side of the Guthrie is on display throughout the year.

As the Guthrie enters its 50th year, a major celebration of the work of playwright Christopher Hampton is under way. The upcoming season features world premieres, classics, and visiting artists.

Dowling, the Guthrie, and especially the 2012-13 season have also faced criticism. There was a firestorm about the perceived lack of diversity in the offerings when the schedule was announced in the spring.

"I have come to learn to not be surprised by anything in this community. The controversy was actually manufactured and bogus," Dowling says, noting that Penumbra's production of The Amen Corner and Carlyle Brown and Company's Are You Now or Have You Ever Been both opened around the time of the season announcement. Meanwhile, if you moved forward or backward in time, you would find examples of great diversity, such as the theater's production of Burial at Thebes.

"What dispirited me most was that it came from within the theater community. It was all internal, within-the-Beltway stuff from people who should have known better," Dowling says. "At the first whiff of the possibility, the Guthrie became the big bad again."

Dowling is well aware of the position the Guthrie has in the community, but he points to several occasions when the theater passed on work to let other companies tackle them, such as Mixed Blood's Ivey Award-winning production of Ruined. The venue has also become a major stage for companies like Pillsbury House, which premiered shows in the Dowling Studio each of the last two years and will remount Buzzer this winter.

"When I first came here, the conversation was that the Guthrie didn't engage with the local theaters. When they got the opportunity, it reverted right back to that narrative. If I felt we were wrong, I'd be very happy to make changes," Dowling says. "It is dispiriting, but we are big enough and ugly enough to take care of ourselves."

Dowling is fiercely proud of the season built among the three theaters. "There is a balance of the modern and classic. This is the season between the three theaters that begins what the Guthrie should be. It's a balanced season that has an array of contemporary plays in the midst of William Shakespeare and O'Neill," he says.

One of those contemporary plays is Buzzer, which tackles thorny issues of race and features a pair of actors who came from the B.F.A. training program run by the Guthrie and the University of Minnesota. "It's contributing to the diversity of the Twin Cities theater scene and is an important part of our mission," Dowling says.

The actor-training program is "one of the most successful of the initiatives we took in the late '90s. It has truly transformed the way we think about casting. When I came here in '95, the youngest person was 35 years old."

First up for the season is the Christopher Hampton celebration, which includes a trio of works and a number of special events. It follows a similar one held to honor Tony Kushner in 2009.

"Immediately, Christopher came to mind," Dowling says. "He really does know how to develop work that has political and historical context. Here's a man whose body of work is extraordinarily rich, but who is practically unknown."

Three of his works will be presented, including the world premiere of Appomattox. The play centers on the American civil rights movement, with each act set a century apart, in 1865 and 1965. As a premiere, it's a piece that continues to be in development.

"It grew from the original idea, 10 characters to 15, now up to 27," Dowling says. "Development of new work is always a scary prospect. You just never know. As you remember with Tony Kushner's play, we got the first four pages on the first day of rehearsal," Dowling says.

Hampton's play has developed faster than that, but still, "we will probably end up finalizing everything here in previews. He wrote a really great scene last week, and that is exciting," Dowling says.

For the other Hampton works, Dowling wanted to avoid the most obvious choice — Les Liaisons Dangereuses (filmed as Dangerous Liaisons) — just as the Kushner celebration did not include Angels in America. Instead, they looked to his long career of work for the theater and selected Tales From Hollywood and Embers.

Tales From Hollywood, about German filmmakers adjusting to life in California during World War II, hasn't been seen very often since its premiere 30 years ago in Los Angeles. Dowling saw a production at the National Theatre in London and was impressed "by the sheer power of the piece. It looks at the balance between American and European culture in a provocative way," he says.

Embers was chosen as an example of Hampton's fondness for adaptations (it's based on a Sándor Márai novel) and as a modest third piece to go with the ever-growing Appomattox. "Financially, we could not afford to do three big shows," says Dowling, who will direct the production.

Of course, love it or hate it — and there are those on both sides — the new Guthrie building may be the signature change from the Dowling years.

"By and large, we have a building that works. I've been involved in a lot of theaters that don't work. The Abbey doesn't work. The backstage at the National in London is appalling as well," Dowling says. "When we came to build here, it was vital to get the backstage right."

"Jean Nouvel's primary focus was on how to capture the views of the Mississippi River. He wasn't going to argue with us on the area of how the backstage works," Dowling says. "When I see hundreds of people on a Saturday afternoon walk on the endless bridge or wander around and take architectural tours, I think we got it right. The public spaces are highly popular, and the backstage, we are in pretty good shape."

Then again, Dowling isn't all that concerned about legacy. "It doesn't occupy one moment of my day. Like every other period, there is good and bad. There are mixed fortunes. It is inevitable. There isn't a magic bullet." 

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