DOWLING, VINCENT (September 7, 1929 - May 10th, 2013) served as an actor, director, and artistic director for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and as the artistic and producing director (1976-1984) of Cleveland’s Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (see GREAT LAKES THEATER FESTIVAL), overseeing the Festival’s move to PLAYHOUSE SQUARE as the first resident company in the city’s renovated theater district.

Vincent Dowling was born the sixth of seven children in Rathmines, Dublin, Ireland to William Francis Dowling, a sea captain, and Mai (Kelley) Dowling. Educated at St. Mary's College, Rathmines School of Commerce, and Brendan Smith Academy of Acting, Dowling first appeared as an actor with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1953 and performed in more than 100 leading roles at Ireland’s national theatre, most notably as Christy Mahon in Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge. Dubbed “the Irish Paul Newman” by the Sunday Independent, he also had a featured role in The Kennedys of Castleross, a long-running serial radio show in Ireland.  

During his first stint at the Abbey Theatre, he rose to the rank of deputy director. When Dowling returned to the Abbey Theatre as artistic director between 1987 and 1989, he spearheaded tours to the Soviet Union (with appearances at the Moscow Art Theatre and the Bolshoi Theatre), Hong Kong, and the company’s first national American tour in 35 years.  

In 1976, Dowling accepted the position of Artistic Director (and later Producing Director) of Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival.  In an essay titled “Why did you come here, Mr. Dowling?” published in the Plain Dealer in 1983, Dowling professed his passionate commitment to “the special magic that from time to time seeps into our hearts in the darkened theater and changes us, even for little, for the better.”  With his sparkling blue eyes, fedora hats, and fondness for quoting Yeats and Virgil, Dowling was an irrepressible and omnipresent evangelist for theater in Cleveland, providing good company about town and good newspaper copy. 

Just before the director came to Cleveland, he “discovered” a college student named Tom Hanks performing “summer stock” theater in California. Dowling invited the 20-year-old actor to join the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival company as an apprentice.  Hanks spent three summers at the Festival, mastering his craft under Dowling’s direction. The Oscar-Award-winning actor always subsequently credited Dowling with teaching him “everything I know about the theater.”

When Dowling first arrived in Cleveland, Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival performed in the Lakewood Civic Auditorium, which served as both a community and high school venue for the West Side suburb. Dowling proposed a new home--a purpose-built theater in the upper level of EDGEWATER PARK, above Lake Erie.  However, the Playhouse Square Association had been created in 1970 to promote the restoration of several long-abandoned theaters between E. 14th and E. 17th Streets downtown.  Bowing to the civic consensus that the reclamation of the theater district should take precedence over individual theater projects, Dowling and the Festival’s Board of Trustees agreed for the Festival to become the first performing arts company to commit to Playhouse Square.

In summer 1982, the Festival concluded its first season in the stately and newly renovated OHIO THEATER with the first American production of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 8 ½ hour adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.  The PLAIN DEALER called the ambitious and sprawling extravaganza--46 actors created 300 roles--“the Cleveland theatrical event of the decade.”  

A virtuosic performer as well as a writer and director, Dowling created and performed one-man shows at the Missouri Repertory Theatre, the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, London’s Globe Theatre, the Cleveland Playhouse and California State University. During his tenure at Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, he was invited three times to the White House to perform one-man-shows about the poet Robert Service and journalist Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional bartender, Mr. Dooley.  

Vincent Dowling was a visiting professor and lecturer at the University of Missouri, Western Michigan University, California State University,  Ohio’s College of Wooster, and Loyola University.  In 1988 he settled in the Berkshire Mountains in western Massachusetts and founded the Miniature Theatre of Chester, now the Chester Theatre Company, in Chester, MA. The First volume of Dowling’s memoirs, Astride the Moon: a Theatrical Life, was published in Ireland in 2000. His 1982 Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival production of Playboy of the Western World was filmed for broadcast on PBS and won an Emmy Award. In 1983 he received a Special Citation For Distinguished Service To The Arts from the Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2000 the Irish American Archives Society recognized him as a WALKS OF LIFE honoree.  

Dowling was married to Irish actor Brenda Doyle in 1952. The couple divorced, and in 1975 he remarried to artist Olwen O’Herlihy, daughter of Irish film and television actor Daniel O’Herlihy. Dowling had four children from his first marriage, Bairbre, Louise, Valerie, and Rachael as well as a son, Cian from his second marriage.  Dowling fathered a child, Irish TD Richard Boyd Barrett, who connected with the actor after reuniting with his birth mother.  Dowling is buried in Chester Center Cemetery, Chester Center, Hampden County, Massachusetts.

Daniel Brennan and David Patrick Ryan


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