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Dowling takes centre stage

At 29, Joe Dowling became the youngest director of the Abbey with his productions characterised by a new freshness of approach. He is now the artistic director of the world-renowned Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, where he soon takes to the stage in Friel's 'Faith Healer', writes Ciara Dwyer

'IT all worked out," says theatre director Joe Dowling. "It's all the mother's fault," he adds with a wry smile.

Last week, the Irish director returned to Dublin from Minneapolis's Guthrie Theatre for his late mother's anniversary mass. It is a year since Joan Dowling died. As he talks of her, his eyes fill. She made him what he is today.

One of five boys, Joe was the third in his family. They lived in Clonskeagh. His father Ben died when he was eight, and his mother had to raise her sons.

"How she did it I don't know. She was a remarkable woman. Right up to the day she died, she was a dogged woman of her generation. She just knew that this was what she had to do and she got on and did it. All of us went to university and did what we wanted to do. She had promised my father this when he was dying."

When Joan met Brendan Dowling -- who was known as Ben -- he was a brilliant economist who worked closely with TK Whittaker in the Department of Finance. (Whitaker is Dowling's godfather.) Joan had been working in the civil service too but gave up her job when she married, as per the rules. Then Ben got cancer and died. "She had to raise five children on her own in an Ireland where women were treated appallingly," says Joe. "I always say that the Taliban had nothing on Ireland in the Fifties. The idea that she had to go back to the civil service on the same salary she had left 15 years before and she didn't have any proper allowance for a housekeeper, which a widower would have had. It was very tough with a baby in the house, but she did it."

How did she raise the children while working full time?

"We had a fantastic woman who had come to work for us before my father died and when he died, she said to my mother: 'I'll stay on. You pay me whenever you can.' Her name was Kathleen Power and she was an amazing woman. She lived with us until she got married."

This is typical of Dowling's decency. He always takes the time to name and give full credit to the people who have helped him along his way. In a recent radio interview on the Arts Show he said that he never forgot Michael Colgan's kindness and how the Gate director had called him straight away when Dowling was shell-shocked having resigned as artistic director at the Abbey. But back to his boyhood.

"When I was growing up I had no sense whatsoever, nor were we ever given any sense, that we were different from other people or that we were poverty stricken. My mother did an incredible job, but that was the way she was. I'm glad that she had those years afterwards and was able to enjoy them." The poet Charles Bukowski says, "What matters most is how well you walk through the fire." Joan Dowling and her boys didn't so much walk through their trouble, they strode with their heads held high. That upbringing has stood the Dowlings in good stead.

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"I have huge ambition," says Joe. "Ambition has always been a motivating force for me. There was no security growing up. Because my father died when I was very young, we didn't own our own home for a very long time. The danger of being evicted was always there. It never happened but there was the sense of it. And as a result, I think I have a determination that I am going to keep going no matter what. Nothing is going to stop me. That determination comes out of growing up the way we did. I notice it in my brothers. We've got to do what we have to do. We always did."

Dowling has always been a daring soul, and is the first to admit that he has been involved in a series of controversies, including resignation from his position as artistic director at the Abbey Theatre in 1985. At the age of 29, he was the youngest artistic director of the Abbey.

"In retrospect it was scary, but at 29 you think you can do anything. By that time I was married to Siobhan [Cleary, whom he had met at the Abbey school of acting in the early Seventies], and we had one child. It was very strange for Siobhan and myself because becoming artistic director of the Abbey is a major national position. There were times when we'd get an invitation to dinner at Aras an Uachtarain and we'd be desperately trying to find a babysitter and seeing if we could afford the taxi fare. We were ridiculous."

This now seems a lifetime ago to him, but he was never afraid to speak his mind.

"It comes out of the way my mother raised us -- it was about always being honest. In our home, everybody expressed their opinions and nobody was afraid to speak up. I was never afraid to say what I thought. I was screaming at the Abbey, but I didn't know how to move it to the next level. That's what I have learnt since I came to America."

His departure from the Abbey arose as he had grown frustrated with the board and the lack of control he had over programming. Although he is conscious that people often latch on to the departure, he reminds me of the good work he did there and the changes that he made.

"I think we achieved a lot. It really did become the home of the living writer -- people like Bernard Farrell, Neil Donnelly, Graham Reid and perhaps more significantly, Frank McGuinness. We took risks with new plays in a way that hadn't been done for some time. We also produced Faith Healer and The Gigli Concert. It was a time of significant change. There was an energy about the work."

Joe Dowling's name has always been synonymous with good theatre. Over the years he has mesmerised audiences with his many memorable productions, including Donal McCann in Faith Healer. He gave us the definitive Juno and the Paycock with McCann and John Kavanagh. Who could forget his production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman with Ray McNally? And his production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Gate with Stephen Brennan and Flo McSweeney was dazzling in its exuberance.

But the brilliant thing with Dowling is that there are no gimmicks. Actors' eyes always light up when they talk of working with him. And no wonder. He is a class act who believes in simplicity and serving the text. As a result, he gets great houses.

"I'm always interested in telling the story with good acting. The play is the thing. All my life I've been accused of being populist, but I don't think you can do theatre unless people go to it. I've no time for the arty-farty wanky stuff that goes on, such as conceptualising. It's about telling stories and telling them well. Every play that you go to you always remember the actors." Dowling started out as an actor and now he is coming full circle. In September he will take to the stage in the Guthrie Theatre as Francis Hardy in Friel's Faith Healer. As a boy, he went to drama classes run by Ursula White Lennon -- Biddy's mother -- and later ones run by the formidable Ena Mary Burke. He excelled in his years with "Burkey", winning the Feis Maitiu for poetry recitals and the Shakespeare Cup. His grandmother had encouraged him to take these classes and he'd always been intoxicated with theatre. As a Christmas present, his uncle would send him and his four brothers and cousins to the Gaiety pantomime. "The day we were going to that, I literally couldn't breathe. It was just the feeling of the curtain going up and the excitement of watching this genius Jimmy O'Dea, and Maureen Potter of course."

By the time Joe was 12, he was going to the Gate, sitting in the back row for a shilling, smitten by it all. When he saw Friel's Phildadelphia Here I Come, it spoke to him so strongly that he knew he would have to work in the theatre. And so he did.

After his time at the Abbey, he ran the Gaiety Theatre and founded the Gaiety School of Acting which is his proudest achievement. Then, he worked as a freelance director. Having brought Juno to New York, he found that he had an American directing career, and spent a lot of time working outside Ireland.

While artistically satisfying, it was tough on his personal life, as he missed his wife and kids. They have a son and daughter. In 1995, he got the job as the artistic director of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. It was about setting up a home base and Siobhan courageously left her job as a presenter on RTE's Check Up and started all over again in the States.

In his time at the Guthrie, Dowling has been responsible for raising $100m and getting an architectural award-winning three-stage theatre built there. Also, in keeping with his refreshing populist attitude, he has made the theatre an accessible place and there is a cafe in the auditorium open seven days a week, from eight until midnight. People bring their laptops, drink coffee and work.

The current season at the Guthrie has a great mix -- some Wilde, Shakespeare and a live satellite version from the National Theatre of Helen Mirren in Phaedre.

Dowling was always a grafter. After he left the Abbey, he swore that he would never get "emotionally involved" with a theatre again. He believes that this distance helped him raise the money for the Guthrie. But although he isn't emotionally involved with it, he still gives it "a hundred and 10 per cent," as he says himself.

I slag him for sounding like a real Yank and he laughs. "I know," he says, "I even say 'to-mate-o'."

America has been good to him, but he adds that everyone works extremely hard there. He looks very well groomed and leaner than years ago. He tells me that he goes to the gym at seven every morning and has a personal trainer there waiting for him.

He is constantly pushing himself and going back to acting is the next big thing. For Brian Friel's 80th birthday, he was asked to contribute to a programme. He re-read Faith Healer and decided he would do it again. But who could he get to play the faith healer? He thought about doing it himself but was uncertain. When he told his wife Siobhan, she thought it a great idea, as did Friel himself.

Dowling's contract with the Guthrie is up in 2010 and he doesn't know if he will stay for longer. The aim is to return eventually to Dublin, but he will still work abroad. His daughter Susanna is a theatre director who has just got rave reviews for a show she worked on in Sydney. And his son Ronan is a web designer living in Minneapolis with his wife Caitlin and their 10-month-old baby, Juliet.

"Now that we have a grand-daughter, any time we have the chance, we spend time with her," says the doting grandfather. "That's one of the most joyous things. Forget the theatre. When you look into the eyes of your granddaughter, it's more satisfying than any standing ovation."