Guthrie Director Joe Dowling had just wrapped up the 2009 Tony Kushner extravaganza when he asked British playwright Christopher Hampton to become the second living writer celebrated with a three-play festival at the Minneapolis theater.

Working out the details took a while, but this weekend the Hampton pageant launches with "Tales From Hollywood," directed by Ethan McSweeny on the Guthrie's thrust stage. In a few weeks, the world premiere of "Appomattox" opens on the proscenium; later in October, the smaller "Embers" has its U.S. premiere in the upstairs studio theater.

For Dowling, these festivals are "a sum greater than the parts" that fulfill dreams he had when the Guthrie opened its $125 million three-stage complex in 2006. Kushner's celebrity created a national buzz, even before the delicious gossip leaked out that he had arrived in Minneapolis with very little of his new play actually written.

"Whatever the sturm und drang that went on within it, I look back at the Kushner festival as an unmitigated success," Dowling said last week. Still, "I was very clear with Christopher that we need to have our ducks in a row."

Hampton obliged. He finished "Appomattox" on July 4 at 11 p.m.

"Auditions were July 9th," Hampton said.

Different kind of guy

Kushner's renown with "Angels in America," his amazing ease in the spotlight, his keen intellect and his ability to communicate made him the perfect personality for a theater festival. People were eager to get to know him, hear him speak or to catch a glimpse of him whispering during intermission as he watched his world premiere of "The Intelligent Homosexual."

Hampton, 66, will be a decidedly different flavor for Minnesota audiences. He was born in the Azores and his father's career in marine telecommunications took the family to Egypt, Hong Kong and Zanzibar. He is as dry as British gin, reflective and thoughtful, shy and diffident, quite unlike such contemporaries -- and spotlight-courters -- as Tom Stoppard and David Hare. As Dowling puts it, "You don't see him on the chat shows and things like that."

Artistically, though, Hampton has his chops. He won a screenplay Oscar when he adapted his play "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" into a film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich. He wrote the libretto for Andrew Lloyd Webber's glamorous musical version of "Sunset Boulevard," and got an Oscar nomination for his screen adaptation of "Atonement."

While working on his three Guthrie plays, Hampton shuttled between New York and Los Angeles for meetings on an ill-fated stage musical of "Rebecca," for which he is adapting the book and writing lyrics, and a couple of screen projects. He's working with Lloyd Webber now on a stage musical about the John Profumo scandal in Britain. Then there are the translations of Yasmina Reza's "Art" and "God of Carnage."

Because he has done so many adaptations and translations, Hampton's name is not the headliner. He's the "center of things, without being the center of things," as Dowling puts it.

In person, Hampton is much like the narrator from "Tales From Hollywood," Ödön von Horvath -- coolly observant, soft-spoken and elegant. He tells great stories with dry wit and self-deprecation. For example, his Hollywood research got him an interview with Billy Wilder.

"He told me how he and Peter Lorre would rent themselves out for $50 to go to fancy parties and start a fight between them," he said. "They'd decide which one would hit the other so he could fall in the swimming pool."

He also told the story of a key scene in the play (cracking his head in a swimming pool) that actually happened to him.

What to play

Both Dowling and Hampton avoided "Dangerous Liaisons" or "Sunset Boulevard" for the festival. Too familiar, they said.

"Tales From Hollywood" was a commission at the Mark Taper Forum in 1982. Hampton long had been intrigued by the German émigré experience in Hollywood during the 1930s and '40s. The play's narrator, Horvath, was a real-life German writer who was killed in a freak accident in Paris in 1938. Hampton imagines a bit of fiction from that fact: that Horvath did not die and in fact emigrated to Hollywood, where he weaves among literate and sophisticated scenes tinged with sadness -- something critic Michael Billington described in a review as the "melancholy of exile." Famed German novelist Thomas Mann became a celebrity in Los Angeles but his brother, Heinrich (who wrote the book on which "The Blue Angel" was based), suffered as a script slave. Bertolt Brecht, who cuts a wide swath in the play, also had some success but he bolted for Europe as soon as the war ended.

"There were scads of émigrés -- cameramen, designers, directors, actors -- who all made the switch, more or less," Hampton said. "But the writers had lost their language."

McSweeny was an early choice to direct "Hollywood." He has worked on the Guthrie thrust several times. Dowling mentioned in particular his work in "A View From the Bridge" and "Six Degrees of Separation." Sealing the deal, Hampton liked a "Liaisons" that McSweeny had staged in Stratford, Ontario.

"Appomattox" came from Hampton's desire to expand the ideas and words that he set forth in a libretto for Philip Glass' 2007 opera of the same name. At the end of the opera, the story hints at the civil rights struggles that would persist in America 100 years hence. The play squares itself in 1865 in the first act and then finds many of the same actors playing new roles in 1965. Harry Groener, for example, plays Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. Sally Wingert is Mary Todd Lincoln and Lady Bird Johnson.

"The second act is a fascinating look at modern history," said director David Esbjornson. "Personalities recycle themselves through history."

Dowling chose Esbjornson for his success in working with new plays. He directed Edward Albee's "The Goat" on Broadway as well as Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues" and Simon Levy's "The Great Gatsby," both at the Guthrie.

"We stepped into it together," Esbjornson said of his work with Hampton. "He gave me information, and it was incredibly challenging to take these pieces and put them into a play."

Times have changed

Originally, "Total Eclipse" was planned as the third play but when Dowling's bean counters looked at the cast size for the other two plays (including about 25 Twin Cities actors), he decided on something smaller.

"Times have changed," Dowling said, referring to the Guthrie's ability to raise funds for the Kushner festival. "For Kushner, we had a major grant from the Bush Foundation and they're no longer giving to the arts. Individual donors don't have the resources, so we're not raising as much money for this."

If Dowling needed a smaller work, Hampton asked, would "Embers" work? It is only six years old and has not had an American production. Dowling had a look at the three-character play based in middle Europe and liked it sufficiently to direct it himself.

Hampton will make a number of appearances during the festival and Dowling said he hopes audiences will take the opportunity to get to know him better.

"Christopher does theater, he does film, he does television, he writes, directs, produces -- so I thought, here's a really interesting guy," Dowling said.

Hampton, who has spent little time in the Midwest, said he has found that "everything here seems so calm."

Asked if he was using the Minnesota Nice term for "boring," he demurred.

"Not at all," he said. "I love New York, but everyone is on the edge of panic there. In Los Angeles, there is a jostling -- status is so minutely observed as it is in a company town."

Here, he can walk quietly from his Guthrie-area apartment to the theater. Esbjornson, who has relatives in Willmar, Minn., and Minneapolis, knows about Midwest manners and succinctly summed up Hampton's quiet confidence and soft-spoken personality:

"He doesn't need to be neurotic."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299