When I first met Vincent Dowling in 1990, the year he founded the Miniature Theatre of Chester, he regaled me with tales of his early life as an itinerant actor, doing “fit-ups”—one-night stands on makeshift stages—in small towns all over his native Ireland. The thrill of that grassroots adventure still lit up his face. In fact, the thrill of making live theater, in venues lowly and grand, never left him. When he died this month, the theater world, from the Valley to the international stage, lost an inspiring talent and fervent champion.
Actor, director, producer and tireless advocate, Vincent was a consummate man of the theater, not just for his many accomplishments but for his bred-in-the-bone passion for the art, the actors and the audience. And his accomplishments were many indeed.
He came to the Valley in what he laughingly called his “one-quarter retirement,” straight off a stint as artistic director of the Abbey, Ireland’s national theater, where he had begun his professional career four decades earlier. In a theater life shared between the U.S. and Ireland, he led the Abbey company on world tours of his signature production, J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, and directed the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland, where he nurtured the talent of a 20-year-old Tom Hanks, who still credits Vincent with launching his career.
Vincent simply couldn’t help making theater. When he saw the Chester Town Hall, with its cozy auditorium and tiny stage, he immediately decided it would be a splendid place to fit up a professional summer theater, notwithstanding its ”miniature” capacity and out-of-the-way locale. From the outset, the theater specialized in small-scale plays with big themes and literate scripts—a vital niche that Vincent’s successor, Byam Stevens, has continued to fill at what is now the Chester Theatre Company.
As Stevens said recently, “Vincent believed in bringing theater to the people. He was as happy performing in a library [or] church as he was performing at the White House—which he did three times—or the Abbey.” His last major production, The Rivalry, about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, was performed in schools and at the Massachusetts State House as well as in Chester and Off-Broadway.
Robert Freedman, who worked closely with Vincent in recent years, remembers that “he made you start to believe in yourself by his sheer presence, his encouragement and support.” That inclusive, enthusiastic presence, wrapped in a charismatic Irish charm, fueled Vincent Dowling’s lifelong achievements and define his lasting influence.•
Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.