BIG BLUE’S BLACK BOX: The Guthrie’s Dowling Studio continues to be a space for theater that might otherwise go unseen.

September 2008.By Jaime Kleiman, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

Theater quiz! What do the plays Old Wicked Songs, The Caretaker, and Blackbird have in common? Answer: Not much, except that they’re all being presented in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio this fall. The studio’s programming, implemented when the Guthrie got its new digs, is meant to have a broad range. Since its inception, the studio has served as a playground of sorts, hosting local theater companies without permanent homes, University of Minnesota/Guthrie BFA student productions, as well as Guthrie-produced projects. The outcome has been good for Twin Cities theater, resulting in more productions of new plays, greater exposure for smaller companies, and national collaborations. Not to mention that the big blue building’s black-box theater gains a kind of street cred for being more than just a place to see the classics.

“The mission [of the studio] has always been to provide an eclectic array of different options to an audience,” says artistic director Joe Dowling. “If you look at what we’ve done up there, starting with [the first studio production, The Falls, in 2006], we’ve created a unique theatrical experience, but not one that you’d necessarily put into a regular program.” Increasingly, there is a focus on presenting new work, which Dowling and his right-hand man, associate director of studio programming Benjamin McGovern, plan to do more of in the coming years.

One of the studio’s upcoming shows is an in-house affair. McGovern, who used to curate performances at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, is directing Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, which is about two brothers whose lives are altered when they allow a tramp to stay in their home. Though the play has echoes of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, it was one of Pinter’s first critical and commercial successes.

Local company Theater Latte Da is doing Old Wicked Songs, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play about the relationship between a Viennese music professor and his student, a twenty-five-year-old, burned-out musical prodigy. The story is told through the Schumann song cycle Dichterliebe and the poetry of Heinrich Heine and stars Jonas Goslow and Raye Birk.

Following Songs is Pillsbury House Theatre’s Blackbird, which won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for best new play. Blackbird addresses a controversial topic—men who sleep with underage women—in a manner not seen since Humbert Humbert wrote rambling odes to Lolita.

One would rarely, if ever, see this fare on the Guthrie main stages, which is precisely the point. “The studio works because we don’t have subscriptions for it,” says Dowling. “We don’t have the same pressures. A lot of theater planning is pretty far in advance, but one of the joys of the studio is we can do things spontaneously. It’s never going to be financially successful,” he admits good-naturedly, “but that’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is creating opportunities for actors and writers and directors and audiences.” Old Wicked Songs: Sept. 12-Oct. 5. The Caretaker: Oct. 11-Nov. 2. Blackbird: Nov. 6-30. Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater; 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls., 612-377-2224,