Joe Dowling: 'We all need the communion' of theater

Guthrie Theater's Joe Dowling
"I absolutely believe to the bottom of my soul that the communal event of sitting in a darkened space, communing with live people on that stage ... that will never die. Because we all need company," said Joe Dowling of the Guthrie Theater.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Joe Dowling is preparing to step down this summer after 20 years as artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. In those two decades he has directed scores of productions and led the theater to a new home on the Mississippi riverfront.

In an interview with Tom Crann, Dowling described the Twin Cities community as "the best audience I've ever worked for. ... An audience who talk to each other about the show, and they fill the houses because the quality of the work is what they want to see."

"Tyrone Guthrie knew what he was doing when he brought his theater here 52 years ago," Dowling said. "He knew that this was a community that would support that theater."

He added, though, that the audience demands quality.

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"If the show is something that people want to see — I've always said this — neither rain nor wind nor whatever weather throws at us will stop them coming," he said. "We in the theater love to blame everything outside ourselves. When a show's not doing well, it's always the weather. 'Oh, well, people aren't going out tonight.' Or it's the political season: 'Everybody's home watching the debates.' Or whatever it is.

"When you look in the mirror, the reality always is the show's not very good. And if a show is good, people will come. There's no two ways about that. It's the oldest adage in the book, and it's true."

Crann's interview with Dowling airs Thursday on All Things Considered. A few highlights:

The role of the director

"For me, the bottom line of directing is storytelling. It's the job of the director to be the conduit through which the actors and the audience meet. That's what the director's job is there for, leaving aside all notions of concept. ...

"A lot of nonsense is talked about the role of the director. The reality is you're there in the room to try and make the material that's in front of you work as well as it can for the audience who are going to come and see it.

"I would like to think that the thing that binds my work together is a huge respect for the text and a great belief in the role of the actor to bring that text to life. I love more than anything being in a rehearsal room with actors, working on a text that's as rich and as powerful as 'The Crucible' or 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' And when you get a group of really talented actors, the joy is unconfined."

Shakespeare for modern audiences

"I'm not a great believer in the 'original practices' Shakespeare. I know it's enormously popular, and when it's done by the Globe Theatre, people love it. I always think that by putting people into Elizabethan costumes and suggesting that the past is another country, and that we really don't behave like that anymore, you distance Shakespeare from the audience. ...

"Here's one of the truly great geniuses of Western literature, one of the greatest writers ever in the theater, and the plays that he's written ... have things to say about the world in which we live. They have things to say about human emotions, which have not changed dramatically since the Elizabethan time. But the way of saying them nowadays requires an audience to connect. ...

"When people say they don't understand Shakespeare, it's usually because the actors are not speaking it properly. ... It's got to be spoken the way Shakespeare wrote it. There's a reason why a lot of it's in verse and why some of it's in prose. And what I've been very fortunate in, in the Guthrie, is to have colleagues like Andrew Wade, who's our voice and speech coach on our Shakespeare work, who really understands that: That the way to speak a Shakespeare line is to understand its poetic value. And when it's done like that, people understand it straightaway. 'Cause he ain't that hard!"

A difficult five years

"The last five years have been difficult, I wouldn't deny that at all. For the first time since I came to the Guthrie in '95, we had a deficit in our 50th anniversary year. It was a year when we tried a lot of new work, and we found that the appetite for new work in larger theaters simply wasn't as strong as we would like it to have been. That was a disappointment, not to have what I was hoping for: a very clean record in terms of deficits and surpluses.

"And there were a lot of community chatter that also was difficult to deal with. But there were great things as well in those five years. ... At the bottom line, it's a business. ... You've got to be able to meet the bottom line each time, and we didn't for one year. And that disappointed me greatly."

Why theater will survive HBO

"Theater's been dying since the day it was born. It's the permanent invalid. When you look at the 20th century and steam radio became the thing, everybody said, 'Oh, nobody'll go to the theater. They'll be at home, listening to Jack Benny.' And then TV came along, and 'Oh, nobody'll go to the theater, because they'll be at home watching Jack Benny. And then along comes the VCR, and everybody goes, 'Oh, well, you can just put in a tape and you don't need ever go out your door again.' And through those years, as each of these technological advances came, theater thrived. And in fact more people now go to the theater worldwide than have ever done in the history of theater. ...

"I believe very strongly that technology is something that we should embrace and should applaud. Because you can get HBO on your machine, you don't have to be home on a particular night to watch a show, the way we all used to have to be. You had to be in on a Thursday night because you'd miss 'The Fugitive' — that's dating me — but now you don't. ...

"I absolutely believe to the bottom of my soul that the communal event of sitting in a darkened space, communing with live people on that stage ... that will never die. Because we all need company. And company in the theater helps us to understand more of who we are. Sitting with your machine, watching something on HBO, is a solitary occupation. And we all need the communion that theater provides."