Joe Dowling on haters, home, the Guthrie legacy, and how to (politely) walk out of a show
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MT: When you first told Siobhan you were going to move to the tundra, how long did you say you’d be here?
JD: Three years—three years. We said, what’s three years? It will be gone in the blink of eye. You only have to put up with three winters. We’re now headed out of our 18th.
MT: One of the things about working in the United States is getting a grasp of its multicultural experience. I was wondering what African-American culture meant to you growing up in Dublin?
JD: African-American culture?
MT: Did you have a sense of what that meant?
JD: Not at all. I grew up in the 1950s.
MT: Teenagers in Dublin today definitely know about Jay-Z!
JD: Sure. And we certainly knew all the American rock ’n’ roll, Little Richard. Certainly we were aware of the culture. But did we grow up with a consciousness that Americans grow up with—a consciousness of the history and how that history has stained the country? No, of course not. We thought America was the richest place in the world and everybody lived in the houses you saw in the movies. Big houses. And everybody had big cars—and some of them had two!
MT: There were some bruising exchanges last year at the Guthrie over multiculturalism. Did the accusations square with the way you see the issues and yourself?
JD: It doesn’t square. I never really understood what the root of all that was. And actually, the very time when we were being attacked most was when we announced the season. And that week Penumbra was opening The Amen Corner here, and up in the studio we had Carlyle Brown’s piece about Langston Hughes—
Waiter: Here we are, lobster roll for you. Cobb salad. Excellent.
JD: And as far as the kind of misogynistic nature of what we were supposed to be about, that never made sense to me. The first 35 years of the Guthrie, there were four plays by women writers. The past 15 years there have been more than 20. In the past five years, there have been a range of women directors and a long list of women designers. The theater has always embraced gender and equality. I think what bruised me most was that we’ve been very supportive of a number of theaters in this community, whether it’s invitations in here—which we’ve done over and over again, subsidizing and developing relationships—or whether it’s the work that we do with those companies—individual people in the theater going out and working with companies all around the Cities. Not one single member of the theater community said, You know what, this is not true. Not one. It would be a terrible irony if the time that I’ve spent here was defined by that particular spat. But I fear that’s what’s going to happen. If you look at the Wikipedia entry for my name—which I did, unfortunately—that is the first thing that you see. And I just find that unfair and kind of cruel.
MT: Do you think it reflects some deeper dissatisfaction in the community? This has been a tough season.
JD: No. I think the majority of people don’t read this stuff, pay no attention. What they do is they decide, we want to go out on a Friday night—what will we go see? If the option at the Guthrie appeals to them, they’ll go. If the option doesn’t appeal to them, they’ll go somewhere else. We’ve sustained our core subscribers, in spite of the fact we’re not having the greatest season.