His name might not have been on the handicappers’ shortlist, but Joseph Haj’s appointment Tuesday as artistic director of the Guthrie Theater brought waves of acknowledgment and praise.
“He’s a huge player on the national scene — one of the finest theater artists working in America today,” said Ralph Remington, former head of theater at the National Endowment for the Arts. “I can’t think of a better choice for that job.”
The son of Palestinian immigrants, Haj, 51, will succeed Joe Dowling, who retires June 30 after an unprecedented 20 years at the helm of one of the nation’s top regional theaters.
With 360,000 tickets sold last year and a budget of roughly $27 million, the Minneapolis theater is a far larger challenge than Haj’s current post at the University of North Carolina, where he is producing artistic director of the PlayMakers Repertory Company.
But Guthrie officials saw potential.
“He is an artist, he is passionate about the classics, a champion of the industry, and he is not afraid to take risks,” Guthrie board chair Lee Skold said in introducing Haj.
Patricia Simmons, who led the search, said Haj was among the first candidates considered, and he stayed on the list because of his reputation for quality art and his belief in theater as a community.
As Haj put it Tuesday, “A great theater makes a community bigger, kinder and saner.”
He has brought theater workshops to Palestinian and Israeli youth on the West Bank and Gaza, built productions in a maximum-security prison, and believes that the Guthrie needs to be responsive to world events.
“Large institutions are like ocean liners,” he said in an interview. “We have trouble being responsive.”
Haj becomes the eighth artistic director since legendary Broadway director Tyrone Guthrie founded the company in 1963.
He reminded an invited audience Tuesday that he started his career as an actor at the Guthrie almost 25 years ago.
“At the Guthrie, I learned what a great theater is,” he said.
In an interview, Haj said he’s not only nervous about succeeding Dowling.
Pointing to a string of portraits of past leaders, he said, “I’m nervous about succeeding him, and him, and him, and him and all of them.
“It is genuinely humbling in the extreme to come to this line of astonishing artistic directors, each in their own way.”
Speaking to his Guthrie audience Tuesday, he addressed head-on the surprise that his selection might have caused in the theater community.
“I was expecting a collective groan that ‘Gosh, that’s not Oskar,’ ” he quipped in a reference to Oskar Eustis, the Minnesota-born producer at New York’s Public Theater, who at one point was thought to be a leading candidate.
A big step up
A New Jersey native, Haj grew up in Miami and earned an undergraduate degree at Florida International University. After earning his master’s of fine arts at North Carolina, he pursued an acting career that brought him to the Guthrie in 1989 and 1990.
Noted maverick JoAnne Akalaitas directed him in his first Guthrie production, “The Screens.” She remains a friend and mentor.
When he took the helm at North Carolina in 2006, PlayMakers had posted deficits in 16 of the 18 previous years and proposed cutting back to four productions a year, from five.
Haj boosted the annual budget to $2.8 million from $1.6 million, and increased the number of productions to about 10 a year.
The Chapel Hill, N.C.-based troupe operates on a similar model as American Repertory Theater at Harvard or the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton. PlayMakers resides within the university’s Center for Dramatic Art. It operates two stages, a 500-seat thrust and a 265-seat flexible space.
At the Guthrie, Haj assumes a company that is 10 times larger by annual budget than PlayMakers, and stages about twice as many shows.
That was a consideration for the search committee, Simmons said: “We pushed hard on that as we interviewed him and his references. We did know, though, that some prominent national figures had made the step,” such as Bill Rauch, who has enjoyed success as artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival after leaving the much-smaller Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles.
Rauch, though, works with an executive director in Oregon.
Dowling has been the Guthrie’s single leader since 2006 and speculation has centered on whether the theater needs a strong second-in-command. Haj would not tip his hand on whether he plans changes.
“There’s a senior staff that is good at their jobs and it would be silly to tinker under the hood before I get a chance to see how things work,” he said. “I’ll leave it like it is in the near term.”
Haj is known as a fan of collaboration. At PlayMakers, he codirected with veteran Twin Cities artist Dominique Serrand.
“We were both told it would be a problem,” Serrand said Tuesday. “But I’ve been collaborating for 35 years, I know what it is to work with someone you disagree with. We had the greatest time.”
Serrand said of Haj’s appointment, “I am truly, profoundly enthusiastic. I am going to be excited about the Guthrie again.”
Planning the next season
Haj’s theatrical tastes are eclectic of necessity. PlayMakers is the only major regional theater between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., so it must be many things to audiences.
“I love Shakespeare, I love a Lisa Kron play, I love a great musical, I love work of traditional theater makers and I love devised work [built by ensemble], work we don’t understand,” he said. “How we champion artists on the edge is important.”
On Wednesday, Haj starts tech rehearsal of a production of Shakespeare’s “Pericles” he’s directing at Oregon.
He will work with Dowling over the next four months on planning the Guthrie’s 2015-16 season.
Several pieces of the puzzle are in place, or have been in the pipeline for a long time. Still, he expects that when the season is announced, “it will reflect a lot of my contribution.”
Since moving into a three-stage complex in 2006, the Guthrie has faced pressures associated with the costs of running a huge building, and some observers have wondered whether economics, rather than art, is driving programming decisions.
Haj demurred when asked what he sees as the theater’s greatest challenges.
“For me to come in flailing my arms and saying, ‘This is what the Guthrie needs’ doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I simply don’t know enough yet.”