Joe Dowling responds to criticisms of Guthrie’s season

This afternoon All Things Considered host Tom Crann interviewed Guthrie Theater’s Artistic Director Joe Dowling about criticisms of its 50th season, and a lack of playwrights and directors who are either women or people of color.

What follows is the complete transcription of that interview. An edited interview will air on All Things Considered this evening, at approximately 5:20pm. Or you can listen to the audio of the full interview by clicking on the link below:

  1. Listen Featured Audio

CRANN: First I want to talk about the 50th Anniversary season. You’ve called some of the reaction around it over the past week a “distraction” and I’m wondering what message you have about this season that was distracted from?

DOWLING: Well I think that one of the things that’s most exciting about this season is the number of different diverse and interesting stories it’s going to tell between Christopher Hampton’s plays about the emigre writers in Hollywood in “Tales from Hollywood” or the Appomatox which is going to deal with the last week in the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement – both hugely important parts of American history. And that’s the starting off of the season as part of our Christopher Hampton celebration.

joedowling.jpg

The fact is that for the very first time – which is astonishing to me – we’re going to do one of the great American classics – Long Day’s Journey Into Night – with two of the Guthrie’s most favorite actors over the past number of years – Peter Michael Goetz and Helen Carey. Those are very exciting.

And the fact that we’ve got three works coming into the theater that we commissioned – works that we have actually been working on, including bringing Mark Rylance, widely regarded as one of the great actors of his generation back to the Guthrie with a play that was created and thought of because of his time with us. It’s called “Nice Fish” and he’s going to do that with Louis Jenkins and it’s about ice fishing. It’s about our region.

Then we bring in Roger Rees who’s just opened a hugely successful show on Broadway to direct a beautifully constructed piece by Crispin Whittell based on Turgenev’s novel, and then Born Yesterday, a fabulous American classic.

So the distraction is that we’ve got a lot of stories to tell as well as some new plays including the Pulitzer prize winning Clybourne Park, and these are all stories that I think an audience – our audience – will really enjoy hearing.

CRANN: As you sit down to plan a season, I’m wondering what sort of balance you need to strike on a lot of different fronts between commercially successful productions that will pack the house and innovative non-mainstream productions – and what’s your thinking as you put that together?

DOWLING: Well it’s very interesting because every season is a balance – a part of that balance demands compromise – things you’d like to do that people aren’t available for or things that you can’t afford to do. So there were a number of kinds of things that we were wrestling with in terms of exactly that balance you’re talking about – between the commercially viable and breaking new ground, and as I say, with three plays commissioned, and bringing some of these major artists here – this season is rich with stuff. But yes it is a balance, because you know so much of our annual budget depends on box office. We really do have to (unintelligible) 1100 seat house in the Wurtele thrust, with 700 seats in the McGuire proscenium, and 200 seats in the Dowling Studio. So we have to sell a majority of those seats every year or our budgets wont balance.

So the starting point for me is I want – when I’m creating a season with all the various people in the Guthrie working with me – is let’s get a season that we really feel people will want to see. That’s the most important thing for me. Theater is not an art form that one can do on one’s own – you need an audience, and that audience we’ve been very fortunate in building over 50 years a tremendous audience for the kinds of plays that the Guthrie do, but there have to be some in there that are recognizable titles that people will latch on to inevitably. If you have too many of those you’re accused of being populist, too few of those and then some how or other you’re something else. So there are always going to be differing points of view and that’s perfectly acceptable, too.

CRANN: I know that each arts organization at the board level, the planning level, will talk about the issue of diversity, and as you put together a season, what role does the idea of diversity – and specifically when it comes to playwrights and directors – what weight is that given as you put the season together?

DOWLING:Well… I think diversity is much broader than simply a snapshot of an individual season. I mean the season planning as I say is very largely a matter of availability, choices, sometimes as I say, compromises. But I think diversity is a very big issue and I’m not certain that we’re all addressing it in a sort of responsible way. The question that’s risen specifically in regards to our season has been about women directors (Tom Crann: and playwrights). Let me address the playwrights first. We’re largely a classics theater – that’s what we do and I may be reading the wrong books but I find it difficult to see – because of social history in the 17th, 18th, 19th and indeed early 20th century – which are termed “classic plays” – women playwrights emerged who would be able to fill large theaters.

Now that’s changing and it’s changed quite dramatically in the last couple of years and there are now a lot more valuable women playwrights and indeed over the last couple of years we’ve presented the first production outside of New York of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, and we’ve had Rebecca Gilman’s work on our stage. So we’re very conscious of constantly looking for and finding work by diverse playwrights that we can. And we certainly see diversity but diversity also has to be seen in the context of the kind of stories we’re telling and as I say those stories are quite diverse in this season.

Now as for women directors, in the last six months two of the best productions we’ve done I think we’ve done in years were done by Marcela Lorca with the Burial at Thebes and Lisa Peterson in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. So the thing that’s kind of disturbed me about this whole controversy, and it remains controversy very largely within the theater profession itself, is that the totality of what the Guthrie is and what the Guthrie does is not by any means discriminatory against women. Strong, vital women play a very important part in the Guthrie from our board chair right the whole way through our organization. And to sort of take a snapshot in a particular time in an institutions life and draw conclusions from that that are neither fair nor accurate seems to be to be a petty response to what in this 50th anniversary season is an opportunity for our theater community to engage with the rest of the world and also to highlight, as we will do, all the way through the season, our own local strengths. So I feel that we are somewhat being pilloried here for crimes that we simply do not commit.

CRANN: Now back in 2003 you told City Pages when they brought up this issue of women playwrights and diversity you said “Caught – we don’t do enough women, yes, but I think the evidence is that we’re shifting in the right direction.” And I think that some of your critics would say that almost 10 years later – what they’re saying about this current season doesn’t show the evidence. So how would you answer your critics?

DOWLING: Well I think we are – as I say, we’re certainly moving in that direction and will continue to do so. But at the end of the day, and let me be very clear about this: at the end of the day, the job that I am entrusted to do is to find plays that I believe as artistic director will serve the mission of the Guthrie and do so in a way that is commercially viable and artistically satisfying. If at this particular time with the various different options that were available to me and the various different opportunities – such as the opportunity to bring Mark Rylance back to the theater, such as the opportunity to get a new play from one of the world’s great playwrights, Christopher Hampton… When these opportunities arose in the context of a season we were putting together, if it turned out that for a particular period of time we don’t have a woman playwright in there, then I say we’re doing the work that in my view – and you know I am very clear that an artistic director has to make these choices and those choices are not always going to be universally popular – but that’s what I’m there to do, to make these choices and stand over them and I refuse to be defensive about the choices we’ve made.

CRANN: Now as the artistic director of the big house in town, in the region – in what ways do you see the Guthrie needs to be a model and a leader?

DOWLING: Well I think we are a leader, we’re a leader in many different directions. We’re certainly a leader in terms of our relationship and development of local companies. One of the things that we’ve done – and there are many things that we haven’t done right – but one of the things we have done right is to develop strong relationships with local artists and with local companies. And we’ve done that systematically and consciously.

Six months of the year in the Dowling Studio is given over to companies that don’t themselves have permanent homes and indeed, in the case of Pillsbury House Theater – who are coming in later this year with the second of the Tarell Alvin pieces – theaters that we believe have a fabulous mission that is complementary to ours, and we’re also thrilled to bring them in, as we are now in the final stages of rehearsal for Penumbra’s production of James Baldwin’s “Amen Corner.”

So the Guthrie has taken the lead in being responsible for developing a relationship with local companies and local artists. So I don’t on the other hand see the Guthrie as being the only repository of dramatic literature and dramatic ideas in the Twin Cities. Of course we’re not! We are the leading theater and we are basically a classics theater that is branching out and working in different directions now, and we give the lead in many many different ways. We give the lead in a lot of other issues, such as accessibility, the work we do for people with disabilities – we’re one of the leaders in the country in that area.

So I think… I get somewhat frustrated because if the Guthrie isn’t doing the sort or work we’re doing, bringing companies in, working with local artists, then we’re criticized for being elitist and for being out of the mainstream. If we are bringing those companies in, then we should be doing more, we should be bringing other people in. The reality is that I think, and I believe strongly that our audience feels, that we’re getting the right balance between work we do ourselves – classical work, contemporary work – and bringing companies and artists in, not only locally but nationally and internationally as well.

CRANN: Does some of this come with the territory of being the “big dog?”

DOWLING: Yes it does, and I have no problem with discussions of these issues in our community. I have no problem at all with the idea that the Guthrie is held to the highest possible standards and we don’t always reach those standards. And I believe we should be held to those high standards. Where I get frustrated is that the arguments in this particular instance have become deeply personal and they’re being conducted in a way that really isn’t helpful to the discourse between people who are interested in theater.

Theater, as we all know, is something of an endangered species in our world, with the various other media that are encroaching. And I believe that with the people in the theater community – and I’ve been a part of theater communities all over the world – and I think the people in the theater community need to recognize that we’re better when we work together, that there’s strength in the diversity that we all have… The different, diverse missions we all have and the way in which those missions are realized. It’s far better for us to work strongly together than to have this kind of drip drip drip of complaints that overwhelms the narrative which is about 50 years – the Guthrie has not only survived but thrived and many many of the theaters that are in our surrounding area thrive because there is such a strong center in the Guthrie and we should be celebrating those 50 years and celebrating that the art of theater is alive and well in the Twin Cities.

And yes of course there are things that we can do differently and things we should do differently, and we’re always open to suggestions and open to constructive criticism. But this kind of – it’s mostly been conducted in social media – this kind of drip drip drip of complaints about the Guthrie – I’m not certain that it’s constructive.

CRANN: There might be some [people] in this “drip drip drip” as you call it of social media where a lot criticism now happens – outside of the daily paper and all of that – who actually feel they are being constructive and they wonder, as you move forward here, is there something you’ve learned from the “drip drip drip” that maybe you’ll look differently as you plan future seasons or even…

DOWLING: (interrupting) NO! No no no. I will continue to do the job that I am obliged to do, and that is to pick the best possible plays, irrespective of gender, irrespective of other issues. It’s got to be the best work that we can put on our stage. It’s got to be … now one of the things that I think has frustrated us most is that we’re still in the process of finalizing this season. And there is more to come and many other things that are in the pipeline. And there will be a great number of women represented in this season, both in the creative teams and of course on stage.

So no, I don’t think that there’s anything for me to be defensive about here. We create seasons year after year that reflect the best possible work that we have on hand and at that particular time. And of course it will involve women and if we have a play that we really feel will fill the Wurtele thrust stage or fill the Maguire proscenium than it is irrelevant to me, and I certainly don’t have any animosity towards women playwrights, and we’ll schedule those plays if we feel, and I feel that they’re going to do the kind of business that I need to do in a theater that’s quite large. Much of this criticism is coming from people who run very small theaters and certainly there’s a different criteria to be applied when you’re actually programming a small theater as opposed to one where you have to do 500, 600, 700 people a night.

CRANN: You’re in Dublin now – have you seen anything there, any trends, any shows that might appear on the Guthrie stage at some point?

DOWLING: You never know – one is always looking for the best the world has to offer to bring to our audiences. I think over the 50 years the Guthrie has done a rather good job of doing that, and we’ll continue to do it. And certainly there may be something happening here or in other places that we’ll want our audiences to see, and we’ll bring them.

  • Richard Prince

    The is a new vulgarity in vogue among people of all different political and ideological stripe. They want to attack and and tear-down; they believe they can destroy for their personal gain; and they get extremely personal and ugly very fast. When I first moved to Minnesota, it has a provincialism of the spirit, a rejection of ideas from around the world and people who fought to beat down humanitarian perspectives and limit the arts to selfish or self-serving ends. But clearly, this mentality is back in fashion, just as the division sensationalism of our national civic discourse has been degraded, now the infighting begins in the arts community. Hooray for you and your pugilistic numbers and narrow views of how the arts MUST meet your list of demands.

  • Daniel Pinkerton

    As I see it, the criticism of the Guthrie’s announced season was constructive and fair. Of course it feels personal to Joe Dowling, because he picked the season. But criticism in the arts is always personal; if I have a play of mine staged, and Graydon or Ro give it a bad review, they are, in a sense, criticizing me. Which is their right, and wouldn’t affect my friendship with either one of them.

    Joe Dowling needs to learn how to take criticism. He needs to realize that people criticize because they care about the Guthrie. Instead of dismissing those who were disappointed or angered by the new season, he needs to say something along the lines of, “I thought I picked a very exciting season. I was surprised by the criticism. However, I understand the point people have been trying to make, and I appreciate the community feedback. I will take it into account when planning future seasons.”

    Cann even gave him a golden opportunity: “Is there something you’ve learned from the ‘drip drip drip’?” Dowling cut him off, saying “NO! No, no, no.” The lesson for us all is do not dare to be anything but a Guthrie cheerleader. You will be seen as the enemy.

  • Richard Prince

    I think that has been exactly what Joe Dowling has been saying and he’s even stated he welcomes the discussion and criticism. There is a literary and artistic staff along with advisors around the country involved with selecting the season. and since they moved into the new building the Dowling Studio has had its own literary manager and director of programming. Selecting a season for a theater center of this size is a process, frequently a complicated process, that often gets reduced in the public eye to simplistic generalities. But Dowling holds the title and I don’t see him backing down; not taking credit for putting together an exciting season; or the charge he isn’t diverse. There are important plays coming up written by James Baldwin and Carlyle Brown. This would have been unheard of before Joe Dowling and his staff came on board. Still, his mission is not the Pillsbury Houses mission and he has theaters with very large numbers of seats he needs to fill so when someone gets on their high horse and holds up Pillsbury Houses mission, they need to realize they could not fill the Wurtele or McGuire Proscenium auditorium even once. I love those small houses and the opportunity they present to small scale production but when I’ve been at those theaters, on the weekend, they have not been full and they were giving tickets away. The small studio and black box stages afford the possibility of putting on a play with 20 paid people in the audience but that CANNOT happen with an organization as large as the Guthrie. They all serve different missions and that’s okay because that makes the community richer and more vital.

  • Bruce Campbell

    Corporate boards look at diversity. Pastoral nominating committees look at diversity. News room editors look at diversity. School principals look at diversity. Because our society has learned that the absence of diversity in this day and age is intellectual poverty, and it is admittedly a singular lesson the “classics” fall short in teaching. If Joe Dowling accepts the reins of one of the most prestigious theaters in the world and is unable to locate classic writing by diverse playwrights, respectfully he should bring on someone who can. Hundreds of US theaters are managing to get this done every single year. The audiences who claim to want it otherwise will be gone in just a few years.

  • Tea Garden

    Dowling and the Guthrie do present diversity as well and better than “hundreds of US theaters” news room editors, schools and certainly pastoral nominating committees. People are not interested in the reality of this matter; they want to point fingers; make accusations. and divid the arts community.