Meet Joseph Haj

The new Guthrie artistic director talks about the role of theater in public discourse.

Image by Heidi Bohnenkamp

One of the most renowned theatres in the nation resides in the heart of Minneapolis’ beloved Mill District. Since 1963 the Guthrie Theater has churned out spectacular productions, and now at the helm of the institution is its eighth artistic director, Joseph Haj. Having left his position at the University of North Carolina’s PlayMakers Repertory Co. in the spring of 2015, Haj is following in the footsteps of the Guthrie’s most recent artistic director of the past 20 years, Joe Dowling. Together the two of them transitioned together: one into retirement, one into the role of a lifetime.

Over the course of this year and into next, Haj will wrap up his first full season and quickly embark on his second, spearheading a list of acclaimed productions. Leading a cultural powerhouse like the Guthrie is no small undertaking. It requires fine-tuned skill, polished finesse and above all, a commitment to artistic excellence—all of which Haj clearly possesses, as was evident when we sat down with him recently. 

How were the first few months of transition into this role?

Great. No sooner was I announced in mid-February (2015) than Joe Dowling was on the phone with me, and there were open slots in the ’15-’16 season, and he was very clear: “What do you want to do? What are the plays that you really want to do? Do you hate any of these plays that you need me to make go away?” He was incredibly collaborative about ensuring that I had a real artistic voice in my first season as artistic director; I think both to help me move into my first year, and Joe was very clear that he couldn’t have two last seasons. He’s just been a great friend and council to me as I’ve stepped into this enormous role, and the board saw fit—and I’m very grateful for it—to have me overlap with Joe here on the ground for several weeks, which really allowed me to just walk in and say, “So, Joe, what do you do about this? How has the organization traditionally thought about A, B and C?” which was outstanding and really very, very valuable to me.

There’s quite a variety in the 2015-2016 season. Is there one that you’re looking forward to the most?

When you put together a season, if you’ve done it right, you end up being really excited for all of the plays, and each in different ways invariably. You like some things for some reasons and some things for other reasons. I’m very excited to bring my own production of Pericles here, which will be my directorial debut at the Guthrie. It’s a production that ran at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We did it in D.C. for a couple of months at the Folger (Shakespeare Library) in November, December, and then it came here in January, February. So I’m obviously super excited about that on a very personal basis. I’m excited for Cocoanuts, this Marx Brothers comedy musical, which I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a couple of years ago, and they’re bringing the core people from that production: the same director, the three Marx brothers, and then we’ll cast the rest from the local community, so I’m very excited about that. I’m really excited about Trouble in Mind and Disgraced, two hugely important plays. On any one of those titles I could talk about them for as long as you like and tell you how excited I am about them. 

How much of a hand do you play in the day-to-day operations of the shows? From auditions to the actual performances, what do you do?

The first order of business is choosing the play. Then you think, “Who’d be the best director for this play?” And then you hire the director. Then you work with the director to identify the creative team, which is who’s the scenic designer? Who’s the costume designer? Who’s the lighting designer? Who’s the sound designer? Who’s the composer? Who’s the choreographer? Who’s the fight choreographer? Who’s the video artist? There can be so many people. So putting together those creative teams to make sure that we’ve got the people necessary to make the play, that gets into the pipeline early … so that that team can begin conceiving the physical world of the play. What’s the scenic world? What’s the costume world? Much closer to it, maybe six to eight weeks before first rehearsal, we begin casting and we do our in-town casting here, and then roles that we can’t fulfill from the local actors, we’ll go to New York to cast. We work with a casting director in New York, Pat McCorkle; my associate artistic director Jeff Meanza will guide the casting process for most of our shows. I usually come in for callbacks here in town, and I’ll go to New York for the callback day when the director has culled down the group to a small group of potential candidates for any given role.

I’m assuming once it gets closer, you see every show once it’s fully ready?

Sure. Every artistic director does this differently. I’ll usually be there on the first day of rehearsal for meet and greet, get everybody started, go away for a time, and let them do their work. I’ll usually look at a run-through of the play in the rehearsal room; I will usually go to the first dress rehearsal of the play; I’ll go to the first preview of the play. I really try not to meddle when it’s other directors. I think you can easily do just as much harm as good, so I watch it in the rehearsal room, I watch it at dress, I watch it at first preview. I give notes to the director after each of those iterations, and then depending if after the first preview the show’s really still in flux, I’ll come to a second or third preview. But typically I go to a preview, maybe two, then I go for opening night just to celebrate the team. 

You’ve been quoted saying that the Guthrie and other large institutions should be more responsive to world events. Can you elaborate?

It’s interesting. Large cultural institutions, they can do so much, of course, because you have meaningful resources at your disposal with which to make work. But large organizations, if we think of them like ocean liners, they’re not very nimble; they can’t turn very quickly, which can make us seem unresponsive—not make us seem—it can make us unresponsive. We can’t respond to something happening in our town, in our region, in our country, in our world, that’s happening right now, something that happens in the news. Something that happens in the news today, if somebody wanted to write a play about it, in 18 to 24 months it might show up on our stage. This isn’t being critical of the Guthrie narrowly; it’s a problem of large cultural institutions that we’re not nimble; we’re not very elastic. We’re not very responsive. I don’t know how to do this, mind you, but I’m very interested in figuring out how we can marshal the extraordinary resources of this theater in such a way that we can also be—even while we’re planning in two years to make that production of Hamlet—how we can respond to what’s going on now and how we can get artists and thinkers and scholars into a room and wrestle with some of the important questions that are going on in our day and time. So how to make this large organization into a responsive place, I’m very interested in.

A lot of stories I read about you only touched on your work in Palestine and Israel. Can you go into greater detail about what it entailed and what it meant to you?

What I learned the most as a theatre artist, it’s extraordinary what happens if you put people under the umbrella of the imaginary circumstances of a play or the imaginary circumstances of a theater workshop. We had Palestinians and Jews in the room together, making work together, and it’s amazing how much dissolves in the pursuit of the work itself. I found that in other places, too, where I did work in a maximum-security prison. On the first day of rehearsals all the black guys sit over here, all the Latino guys sit over here, all the white guys sit over here. I thought, “I’ll never be able to figure out how to make this work.” But going through the crucible of making theater, all of those things fell away. The arts are such powerful vehicles for empathy, for understanding other positions, for making room and space. I think in a world where we control our narrative so narrowly—we have our home pages and we can funnel only the news that confirm our already held ideas—it’s making all of us, I think, kind of fundamentalists. The theater invites a community to come in and sit in a room and drop into somebody else’s story, and that’s powerful in our present moment. I think the theater is more necessary than it has been in a very long time.

What are you bringing to the Guthrie and the Twin Cities theater scene?

I bring a focus on artistic excellence. I bring a focus on connecting the work we make powerfully to the community that we are charged to serve. I’m working very, very hard to make the walls of this building as porous as possible and connecting the work as impactfully as I can to the community. I think if the work that we’re making is relevant, has something to do with people’s lives, then we’re doing something meaningful in our community, and I think I bring that as a guiding principle to the work. I also bring a commitment to an idea about diversity and inclusion and a plurality of voices—who gets to tell the stories that we choose to put on our stage, who are the directors, who are the designers, who are the actors, what are the plays—with a focus towards inclusivity and a plurality of voices.

Attendance and the Guthrie’s budget have dwindled slightly over the last few seasons, but it sounds like you’ve had experience turning things around in similar situations. What sort of steps do you think need to be taken in this case?

To be very clear, in my prior job, that’s what the job was: It was a turnaround job. This is not. This is an extraordinarily healthy and successful organization. This doesn’t require my ability to turn the place around. In fact, it’s because of this organization’s long and sustained success that I can lift my eyes to a further horizon as quickly as I’m able, to see what’s next. This is great—what do we get to do next? It’s evolutionary. It had wonderful leadership under Joe Dowling for 20 years, and now it’s time for a next step and to see what else awaits. 

What can you tell me about the culture at the Guthrie?

I’m taking the time to meet the entire organization in very small groups. Three, four, six people at a time and taking my time to learn the entire organization. Those conversations are pretty wide ranging, but what I’ve asked is, “Why do you choose to make your working life here at the Guthrie?” and “What are the challenges that you face? Either you in your work, or that you think the Guthrie faces by virtue of you living and working in this community? What do you see?” It is such a culture of excellence here. People who work here are superb at their job, they’re proud of the work that they do, they’re proud to belong to this organization, and they desire the very, very best for it. I’ve been stunned to learn how, almost to a person, they just love the organization and want it to be as extraordinary as they know how to make it, so that’s a big thrill.

Do you see any differences compared to other theater scenes that you’ve worked in? Or similarities?

What you have here is excellence everywhere, which is extraordinary. And it’s great as a leader—it’s astonishing to see people who are so good at their jobs up and down this organization. Where if you’re in a smaller theater, you’re doing your very best to recruit talent, identifying people who are really good a minute before the rest of the world knows, and hopefully you have them for a few years before the rest of the world knows their brilliance and snatches them away. Everybody here is at the top of their game, which I think is great, which I think pushes leadership. It pushes leadership to bring their very, very best to the table, because you have excellent people who expect excellent leadership. I’m not saying by virtue that at the Guthrie we’re the very best at everything—of course we’re not. In fact, going back to the nimbleness question, some of the companies in this town are superb at being utterly responsive to what’s going on in the world—I mean superb. We can learn an awful lot from them.

You performed at the Guthrie about 25 years ago, so what’s different about it now?

The Guthrie Theater is such a deep and powerful part of who I am as an artist, as a person. I learned so much in those few years that I spent as an acting company member with the Guthrie. But it was 25 years ago—this community’s very different than it was 25 years ago; we’re not in the same physical space as we were 25 years ago. But I think this theater, going back to the time of Tyrone Guthrie, this idea of artistic excellence as the first virtue is so deeply inculcated in this place, so deeply placed, and it seems to have been true at the very beginning, it was certainly true when I was here 25 years ago, and it seems to be the theater that I’ve inherited.

A Look Ahead at the Guthrie's 2016-2017 Season

Sense & Sensibility: Sept. 10-Oct. 29

Home Street Home: Minneapolis: Sept. 16-25

The Parchman Hour: Oct. 1-Nov. 6

Hold These Truths: Oct. 7-Oct. 23

A Christmas Carol: Nov. 16-Dec. 30

7th House Theater: Nov. 18-Dec. 4

The Lion In Winter: Nov. 19-Dec. 31

Transatlantic Love Affair: Jan. 27, 2017-Feb. 12, 2017

The Royal Family: Jan. 28, 2017-Mar. 19, 2017

King Lear: Feb. 11, 2017-Apr. 2, 2017

We Are Proud To Present: Feb. 21, 2017-Mar. 12, 2017

Echo War: Mar. 17, 2017-Apr. 2, 2017

The Bluest Eye: Apr. 15, 2017-May 21, 2017

Charles Francis Chan Jr.s’ Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery: May 12-May 28, 2017

Refugia: May 13, 2017-June 11, 2017

Sunday In The Park With George: June 17, 2017-Aug. 20, 2017

The New Griots Festival: July 6-16, 2017

Native Gardens: July 15-August 20, 2017

The Holler Sessions: August 4–20, 2017

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