Vincent Dowling, Artistic and Producing Director, Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival


During his nine seasons (197684) at the helm of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, Vincent Dowling brought theater in Cleveland to a new level, filling first the stage of Lakewood Civic Auditorium (the Festival's longtime home), and then, beginning in 1980, the newly renovated Ohio Theatre on Cleveland's Playhouse Square, with memorable productions of Shakespeare and the great Irish playwrights. With his passionate outreach and engaging mannersurely the theater never had a more beguiling ambassadorhe built a new and enthusiastic audience for classic drama in Northeast Ohio and seized any opportunity to promote tolerance, open-mindedness and the place of live theater (“a necessary human resource”) in a healthy society.

Born the sixth of seven children in Rathmines, Dublin, in 1929, Dowling had already enjoyed a major acting career in Ireland, where he created more than 100 leading roles at Dublin's world-famous National Theatre of Ireland, the Abbey (195376), including Edmund in the first Irish production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Christy Mahon in an acclaimed production of J. M. Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Dubbed “the Irish Paul Newman” by the Sunday Independent, Dowling is perhaps remembered most fondly by many of his countrymen as 20-year-old Christy Kennedy on The Kennedys of Castlerosse, a long-running radio show that was so popular that when President John F. Kennedy visited Ireland, he was asked if he was related to the fictional family. (He said yes.) As a director and then deputy artistic director of the Abbey, Dowling was credited with injecting new life and an exciting new vision into that institution, which had long been held hostage to internal politics and the cause of preserving the ancient Irish language.

He was to bring the same passion and clarity of vision to his decade in Cleveland, where he starred in an unforgettable version of Sean O'Casey's masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock, and, with the help of his tireless stage-manager, wife Olwen O'Herlihy, mounted an Emmy award-winning production of Playboy and an inspired revival of the sparkling 1912 comedy Peg O' My Heart featuring Dowling's charismatic actress daughter Bairbrewhich was so popular it had to be revived again several years later, with her sister Rachel. (Both sisters later appeared in John Huston's film, The Dead.) With daring and imagination, Dowling staged a zany original musical set in the Wild West and turned a 12-page radio scriptDylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Walesinto an enchanting evening of real theater.

But the most outstanding example of Dowling's legendary nerve was surely what Dickens's Sam Weller would have called his “out-dacious” decision to acquire the rights to the Royal Shakespeare Company's eight-and-a-half-hour adaptation of the great English novelist's sprawling celebration of humanity, Nicholas Nickleby, making Great Lakes the first American company to take on this formidable project. As word of mouth spread, packed housesincluding many children used to 10-minute TV segments punctuated by commercialssat spellbound as 46 actors created 300 roles to bring the life and adventures of a bright, decent but impecunious young man. After a dinner intermission, theater goers rushed back to see Part Two, with nary a thought of leaving early. Plain Dealer theater critic Marianne Evett called the 1983 production, which repeated its success in Chicago, “the Cleveland theatrical event of the decade.”

Dowling saw the resident repertory company as a place where seasoned players like Holmes Osborne, the brilliant character actor Barnard Kates and Ireland's Aideen O'Kelley could help nurture a new generation of talented actors, such as a young man named Tom Hanks whom Dowling spotted in summer stock while visiting his father-in-law, actor Dan O'Herlihy, in California. Hanks was to earn his Actor's Equity card in the course of three seasons with Great Lakes (197779), snatching the Cleveland Critics Circle's 1978 best actor award for his Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Indeed, the Academy Award-winning Hanks (Philadelphia, Apollo 13) continues to speak warmly in interviews of Dowling's formative role in his development as an actor.

In 1984, Dowling left Cleveland to become artistic director of the Solvang Theater Festival in California, but shortly thereafter answered a call from his beloved Irish National Theatre, then in dire financial straits, to assume the artistic directorship of the Abbey. Once again, he succeeded in injecting new life and excitement with plays by important new writers like Sebastian Barry and fresh stagings of classics like Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten, which he brought to Buffalo, New York (O'Neill's home town), and Playboy, which played Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center to glowing reviews.

Dowling himself was invited to the White House on three occasions to give command performances of his one-man shows as poet Robert (“The Shooting of Dan McGrew”) Service and the immortal “Mr. Dooley,” a fictional bartender who held forth on a variety of issues in a widely syndicated newspaper column by Finley Peter Dunne. He has since given memorable performances all over America as Service, Oscar Wilde, “Mr. Dooley,” environmentalist John Muir (who meets President Teddy Roosevelt on a camping trip), and William Butler Yeats. Dowling revealed the humanity of these larger-than-life men and captured the heart of their wisdom.

In 1988, having settled in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, Dowling founded the innovative Miniature Theatre of Chester, an equity company with a special commitment to developing new scripts. He has received honorary doctorates of fine arts from John Carroll University in Cleveland, Westfield State College in Massachusetts, and the College of Wooster (Ohio), as well as the Irish American Archives Society's Walks of Life award, and the first “Wild Geese” Award for his contribution to the Irish Arts in America. His personal papers are a cornerstone of the American theater collections in Kent State University's Special Collections and Archives, which include the archives of GLSF (now known as the Great Lakes Theater Festival) and the papers of its first director, Arthur Lithgow.

When the first volume of Dowling's memoirs, Astride the Moon: A Theatrical Life (Wolfhound Press), appeared in the fall of 2000, an Irish gossip columnist predicted it would be “as eagerly read among Ireland's theatrical folk as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was by younger folks not long ago.” Dowling is now at work on the sequel, which will dwell heavily, he promises, on the Cleveland years.

—Dennis Dooley

Cleveland Arts Prize
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