Joe, Unscripted

Joe Dowling on haters, home, the Guthrie legacy, and how to (politely) walk out of a show

Last year, when Joe Dowling was being attacked for the Guthrie Theater’s perceived lack of diversity in its programming, the theater’s longest-serving artistic director was exasperated and, by all accounts, genuinely hurt. He had led the Guthrie since 1995. He oversaw its move to the Mississippi River, he expanded its community outreach, and he encouraged its ongoing efforts to bring other, smaller troupes into the building—where they perform on a stage with his name on it. Don’t people know me by now? he wondered. Perhaps not. Recently, Michael Tortorello sat down for a long lunch with Dowling. No cameras. No soundbites. No agenda.

Noon at Sea Change restaurant, the table closest to Chekhov.

Michael Tortorello: How many times have you eaten here?

Joe Dowling: The real question is how many times I’ve eaten here this week.

MT: Are you the kind of person who orders the same thing every day?

JD: Oh yeah. I’m a creature of habit, but that’s a family trait. If we do something twice in our family it’s a tradition.

MT: You were just in Ireland directing The Dead.

JD: Yes.

Waiter: Good afternoon. Welcome. Can I offer anything to drink for anyone right away, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or anything?

JD: Water is fine. I’m going to do the Cobb salad.

MT: I’ll have the lobster roll. Has it always felt like home when you go back to Dublin?

JD: Yeah.

MT: Did that ever change?

JD: No, I was too old when I left—it was 17 years ago and I’m 64 now. So, do the math. I think if you leave somewhere when you’re in your 20s, it’s different than if you are settled and have family.

MT: You lost your mother—

JD: Five years ago.

MT: Your friends have gotten older.

JD: Everybody does. Even you will. When my mother was alive and Siobhan’s mother was alive, we were there probably once every six weeks. So not much changed without us being aware of it. And we live in two places. There’s no question about that.

MT: Do you have a home in New York, too? I know you’re there a lot.

JD: Yeah. In New York I have a room. It’s a studio apartment that we bought some years ago. It’s on 57th and 6th.

MT: Is that agreeable? Being in so many places?

JD: It’s very agreeable. I don’t feel rootless in any sense. Anybody in the theater in a way is rootless. You work where the work is, and you develop relationships wherever you are. But home is Ireland, there’s no two ways about that. There’s Dublin and everything else.


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.


MT: Do you wish that you’d left earlier?

JD: No, no, no. No.

MT: Is the job fun?

JD: It has its moments. If I’d wanted to leave earlier I would’ve. I mean, no one forced me to stay. And I have no regrets at all about staying.

MT: How many hours a week are you here?

JD: How many hours are there in a week? I was here until 11 o’clock last night, and I’ll be here until the same time tonight—we’re teching Nice Fish and we’re paying attention to that. It varies week by week. But rarely is there a week that isn’t 65 to 70 hours I imagine, but I’ve never imagined.

MT: I’m joking a little bit—but only a little bit: do you worry about this place falling apart without you?

JD: Oh, not at all! Anybody who thinks they’re indispensible needs a psychiatrist. This organization is very strong and very vibrant and has a lot of great people working in it from its top echelons right through the organization.

MT: Do you wish that you’d had the chance to do movies?

JD: Biggest regret of my life. I’m of a generation of Irish directors that were lost to possibility. When I was growing up, there was no Irish film industry. It didn’t exist, so theater was where you put your energies. And then some years later when I had sort of established my career, not only as a director but as an administrator and so on, I was deep into it. Then the shoots began of an Irish film industry.

MT: What types of movies do you like?

JD: I don’t go to very many action movies. It’s too noisy for my old ears. Siobhan and I went to see The Avengers, because we thought it was going to be in the Diana Rigg style—remember that series? Well, we thought it was going to be an update of that. Turned out it was a completely different experience. And we didn’t understand a word of it. She left halfway through. We were at that cinema where there’s a bar upstairs, and she went up and had a cocktail. I felt like a total old fart at that point.

MT: Have you ever walked out of anything in the theater?

JD: Oh yes, people should if they don’t enjoy what they’re seeing. Walk out. Why not? I mean, I wait for intermission. But I have walked out at intermission of plays. Very rarely.

MT: What do you think when you realize that people have left one of your shows?

JD: I’m always heartbroken. I want to cry when I see people leaving my productions. But I have no hesitations about leaving other peoples’. I’m very distressed when I go back in after intermission and there are big chunks of seats gone. Happens all the time. Every performance.

MT: Are there distinctive things about Minnesota audiences?

JD: I think it’s the best audience I’ve ever worked in front of.

MT: Really?

JD: Absolutely. People are warm and forgiving and understand the process. In New York that is just not the case. In New York they’re paying a hell of a lot of money and they want their money’s worth. And so there’s a brutality. They’re ready to attack: at the first sign of weakness, they will pounce.


MT: Can you do a Minnesota accent?

JD: Noooo.

MT: I thought as an actor you’d be able to do it.

JD: I avoid it. One of my pet hates is people doing an Irish accent or trying to do it. I absolutely loathe it.

MT: Why?

JD: Because it’s sort of racist and insulting. Because there’s an implication of stupidity in the tone. As soon as you do an Irish accent you get a loose, almost Ah soor ahh ehh. It gets under my skin because I think if you tried to imitate a British accent, you wouldn’t make the person sound stupid and incoherent. I meet people and they go, Ah, the top of tha marning, yer a great Irishman. And I think, I have no idea why you would talk to me like that. I don’t talk like that, and nobody I know talks like that.

MT: Do you check the box office at the end of every weekend?

JD: At the end of every day! It automatically comes to me in a report, an email, at midnight. For a long time I used to wait as soon as midnight came and examine it. I don’t do that anymore. Now I wait until 6 a.m. because it was driving me crazy, especially during the winter, when we were seeing figures I didn’t like to see. I hate empty theaters and I hate dark theaters. If there’s one seat empty, I feel it’s a failure. 


How does one of Minnesota’s most influential arts institutions celebrate its 50th? By throwing a weekend-long party, of course!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

  • Golden Soiree: pre-and-post-gala cocktails, a five-course dinner, and admission to the gala and dance party. $5,000 per person
  • Fête 50: a dinner party, champagne reception, and admission to the gala and dance party. $500 per person
  • BEHOLD Gala: hosted by Sally Wingert and Greta Oglesby, the night features new and classic works by such artists as Tony-winning songwriter Jason Robert Brown, Tracie Bennett, and more. $150 per person  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

  • Community Celebration Day: an open invitation to the public to sample classes, go backstage, watch a performance by Open Eye Figure Theatre, see a costume promenade, and learn more about the Guthrie’s history. Free, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.