Dowling: Next five years will be challenging for the Guthrie

The Guthrie
The Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis, which opened a few years ago, will be one of artistic director Joe Dowling's greatest legacies.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Joe Dowling just served his five-year notice. Already the longest-tenured artistic director in Guthrie Theater history, Dowling just accepted a five-year contract extension and expects to leave that post when that time is up.

Joe Dowling says with the current economy, it would be inappropriate for him to step down right now. But he says his latest contract extension will be the last.

"Have no fears," he laughed. "There will be an end, and it will be in five years' time. No question about that."

Since he joined the Minneapolis-based Guthrie Theater in 1995, Dowling has seen good times and bad. It took some political wrestling, but the Guthrie's $125 million complex built on the edge of downtown Minneapolis a few years ago is clearly going to be one of his greatest legacies.

The building has also brought challenges, including regularly filling the seats at its three theaters. Dowling says this means doing classics and crowd-pleasers, along with edgier work.

"We are always looking for that balance for what's creative and inventive, and what will attract an audience," said Dowling. "There is a certain strain of thought sometimes I hear, that the Guthrie's not adventurous enough and we don't do enough in terms of experimental theater. "We're not a small theater. We are a large space, and we need to fill that space in order to make sure that we can continue on."

Dowling breaks ground
Dowling was all smiles in September 2003, when construction began on the new Guthrie Theater.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

All the same, Dowling wants to make sure the Guthrie's recent work with living writers continues, and in particular American writers such as Tony Kushner, who was the subject of a two-and-a-half-month festival last year.

Yet times have changed, and Dowling acknowledges the arts economy is suffering from what he calls the lagged recession -- where the effects are only really now being felt, and are likely to linger for some time.

"I don't see much light at the end of a tunnel at the moment," he said. "I think we are all recognizing that for the foreseeable future, belts will have to be severely tightened."

The Guthrie announced a balanced budget at its annual meeting on Monday night, but Dowling points out this was the result of deep spending cuts in staff and other parts of the budget last year.

'Intelligent Homosexual'
A scene from Tony Kushner's "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," which had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater last year.
Photo copyright Michal Daniel, courtesy of the Guthrie Theater

In addition to the human cost, Dowling says he is concerned about keeping artistic standards high, because that's also vital for maintaining audiences.

"We reduced the time we spent in the rehearsal room by a week," he said. "That's the crucial time when the play gets created, when the director and actors and writer have the opportunity to work together over a period of weeks. By reducing that by a week we did damage, I think, to some of the work on our stages."

Dowling says having cut so much last year, the only way forward is to increase income, which will be a challenge in this climate.

"New patterns have been set. New norms have been created and we will need to respond to those," Dowling said. "We will need to find ways of being creative about getting our income up, and find ways of keeping our costs down, and that's the only way we can do it. There are no alternatives to that."

Yet despite all this, Dowling says the Guthrie is very strong, and he's optimistic about the future.

Actor and director Joe Dowling
Joe Dowling's starring role in Faith Healer at the Guthrie last year marked his first time on stage in 20 years.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

"We have come an enormously long way since 1963, and the distance that we have to go in terms of creating what I have termed a national center for theater art and theater education is actually quite small," said Dowling.

"We need to be able to do more new work. We need to be able to bring more companies here and we need to be able to continue our training programs. But with those things in sight, I am somewhat optimistic that the next five years can be rich ones," he said.

When asked what personal goals he has for the rest of his time at the Guthrie, Dowling says he's focusing on the institution. He says he will direct more plays, although he says his return to the stage as an actor last season was a unique event.