Vincent Dowling, 83; Irish director cofounded Chester Theatre Co.
No stranger to the footlights of famous venues, Vincent Dowling served as artistic director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and performed three times in the Reagan White House before audiences that included Ireland’s prime minister and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill.
He left as much of a mark, though, in a place whose distance from Boston, Dublin, London, and Washington could be measured in more than miles. In 1990, Mr. Dowling cofounded what is now the Chester Theatre Company in a Western Massachusetts town of about 1,300 residents, isolated from what he then called “the tyranny of the big budget and the creeping paralysis of the bottom line.”
“All my life,” he told the Globe in 2003, “I have found that the people who really need and understand and have the deepest love of theater are the people nearest the land.”
Mr. Dowling, who also was artistic director of Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland and its Shakespeare Festival for several years after becoming a US citizen in 1976, died May 9 in Massachusetts General Hospital of complications from surgery several days earlier. He was 83 and had called Chester home for more than 20 years.
“Vincent believed in bringing theater to the people,” artistic director Byam Stevens said on the Chester Theatre Company website. He added that upon his arrival at the company, he “asked Vincent about the improbability of founding a professional theatre company in a small, rural town — his answer was that every town should have a professional theater!”
An inspirational figure for theatergoers and actors alike, Mr. Dowling counted among his discoveries a young Tom Hanks, whom he directed in California before persuading him to perform as part of the Ohio theater company.
In an “overture” for Mr. Dowling’s 2000 memoir “Astride the Moon: A Theatrical Life,” Hanks began by invoking his mentor’s adage: “Work in the Theater is more fun than Fun.”
“To have once worked with Vincent is to miss the experience, to hope that all your jobs could be so specially rewarding, that all your roles could have been so lovingly supervised, that all your moments spent in front of an audience could have been as fun as Fun,” Hanks wrote.
Mr. Dowling “had a huge amount of generosity toward other artists,” said his wife, Olwen O’Herlihy Dowling. “He actively made himself available to help anyone in the art of theater. He felt that was something he had a responsibility to do.”
That generosity extended to those who crossed Mr. Dowling’s path in the spotlight or in stealth. Globe columnist Kevin Cullen was a student at Dublin’s Trinity College in 1979 when Mr. Dowling caught him sneaking into the Gaiety Theatre. “You must love the theater,” Mr. Dowling said in lieu of an admonishment.
“Vincent was as decent a man as I’ve ever known,” Cullen said. “In a business that is full of big egos, he had none.”
Hanks wrote that to be directed by Mr. Dowling “is to be celebrated by him, a great cheerleader out in the house who will preface every note and soften every criticism with the word ‘Darlin’.’ ”
The sixth of seven children, Mr. Dowling was born in Dublin. His father was a master of sail and steam for merchant vessels.
Working as a teenager in a Standard Life Assurance office in Dublin, Mr. Dowling was entranced by a colleague’s looks and wrote in his memoir that he “literally followed her to the Brendan Smith Academy of Acting. As soon as I started acting classes, I was hooked. Acting was living! I was finding out what I was meant to do, why I was alive, what I was really for.”
The relationship with the colleague didn’t last; the passion for theater did. Mr. Dowling was hired as an actor at Abbey Theatre, where he was a lifetime associate director and served in roles including artistic director and producing director in North America. He led the theater company on its first visits to places such as Florence, Hong Kong, and the Soviet Union.
He formerly was married to Brenda Doyle, with whom he had four daughters: Bairbre of New York City, Louise and Valerie of Los Angeles, and Rachael of Dublin.
In 1975, Mr. Dowling married Olwen O’Herlihy, an artist, and his other survivors include a son, Cian of Northampton, and seven grandchildren.
While working with the Abbey Theatre, Mr. Dowling lived for a while in the United States as a visiting artist, and “that one trip whetted my appetite,” he told the Globe in 1990. “I liked the quality of American theater, which was far in advance of what anyone was doing in Ireland or England. I liked the actors: their training, their enthusiasm, their lack of affectation.”
Mr. Dowling was artistic and producing director of the Great Lakes company in Cleveland from 1976 through 1984 and put on in Chicago and Cleveland the first production by an American company of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” a show that stretched 8½ hours. For PBS he directed J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” and on stage he brought the play to Boston’s Colonial Theatre in 1990.
When Mr. Dowling first visited Chester in 1986, “the peasant blood in me responded to the land,” he recalled in a 1990 interview.
He was drawn as much to a trout-filled river near his house as he was to the small town hall where he cofounded what was first called the Miniature Theater of Chester.
Of his decision to switch citizenship, he wrote in his memoir: “It isn’t that I love Ireland less — I would do anything for her, truly, except live there — but I love North Chester more.”
Friends and colleagues in the theater community are discussing plans for a public gathering to celebrate his life, his family said.
His career “never really stopped,” his wife said. “Vincent said old actors don’t retire. They just get less work.”
Mr. Dowling certainly never ceased telling stories on the stage and the page. Those who never heard his voice in person can sense the sound of his homeland in anecdotes that twinkle and dance in “Astride the Moon.”
He wrote in his memoir that an older brother was sent to get him baptized, bringing as payment two shillings and sixpence, less than the priest preferred.
“I became a bargain-basement Catholic, cleansed of original sin for ‘two and kick,’ as the Dubliners called the half-crown,” he wrote, quickly adding that “the baptism money might have been better spent on whiskey. I lost the faith in my mid-30s.”