It has lost three of its four senior leaders. A federal labor grievance alleges on-the-job harassment. Dozens of female staffers decried sexism in an open letter. Some say the workplace culture must change.
So, three years into his tenure at the Guthrie Theater, is artistic director Joseph Haj still on course?
The Guthrie’s board of directors thinks so. It unanimously extended his contract for five years, through the 2022-23 season.
“We brought in Joe Haj to take an amazing history of the Guthrie Theater and take it to the next level, and the feeling of the board is that’s exactly what’s happening,” said board chair Martha Goldberg Aronson.
Haj’s 2017-18 season included artistic and commercial successes, with his current revival of “West Side Story” virtually sold out. Increased diversity is evident on the creative side: 40 percent of roles since he arrived have been played by people of color, while women will direct six of next season’s nine mainstage plays. And the theater is attracting top artists, including director Lyndsey Turner (“An Enemy of the People”) and playwright Danai Gurira (“Familiar”).
But the outside world doesn’t stop at the theater’s door. In its focus on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), the Guthrie is grappling with the same issues as most organizations. As writer Jenna Wortham said in a recent “Still Processing” podcast about inclusion, “Every major cultural institution is dealing with this sort of thing and none of them is doing it perfectly.”
Some current and former Guthrie staffers express frustration, saying equity has been slow to reach backstage.
“There are people who have worked there for a really long time that are resistant to change,” said Jen Novak, who left the marketing department this year.
Haj is sympathetic to those who say change is not happening fast enough, and those who say it’s moving too fast. He hears from both.
“You have to be a special kind of stupid to not want [equity] for your organization but, good heavens, the pursuit is brutalizing,” Haj said in a recent interview. “There are missteps along the way, and it’s lurching and inexact. And there’s always more that is wanted from us than we are able to deliver.”
Larry Bourgerie, a lecturer on work and organizations for Carlson School of Management, compared new leaders who are trying to change cultures to the shifts that follow elections or a company’s decision to expand. Both of those typically take years, he said.
“I worked with a medium-sized credit union that wanted to get bigger,” Bourgerie said. “Over the course of two or three years, a lot of people weren’t happy and went somewhere else but, hopefully, you recruit with a new vision. You’ll see the ship turn around over the course of a few years.”
Amanda Rodriguez left a marketing job at the Guthrie this spring, saying she was frustrated that her ideas were heard but not acted on.
“The majority of the Guthrie staff wants to do what is right,” she said. “They want to progress and shift the culture through art. They want to be EDI leaders. Do I think leadership and upper management are doing a great job? No. Do I think they know how to do a good job? No. But does any predominantly white institution, especially when excellence is defined by white-supremacy culture? And can you change if you don’t take seriously what your marginalized groups in the organization are telling you?”
Haj knows it’s a long road.
“It’s humbling in the extreme to recognize you haven’t done as much as you set out to do,” he said. “I mean, what do we want? We want an entirely just and equitable organization that makes work that is meaningfully impactful to all communities. You’re going to fail on that pretty much every day of your life.”
Haj has a lot on his plate. There are no plans to fill the open jobs on an interim basis, so an internal operating committee will oversee decisionmaking. A search firm has been engaged to find a new managing director and a development director. That is likely to take six months, Haj said. The theater has identified potential production directors, so that post is likely to be filled sooner.
During an expansive interview with board chair Aronson at his side, Haj reflected on his first three years and the challenges ahead. (Comments have been edited for clarity.)
On whether staff departures suggest structural problems:
“There is no leader in my position who has three senior team members leave that isn’t taking a really good and hard and full assessment of how they do the work,” said Haj.
He cited a nationwide shift in theater leaders. “The question for leadership in this moment is: ‘What world are we in? Do we only get to have great people for three to five years because this is how it’s going to be forever?’ ”
On whether a lot is expected of the Guthrie because of its visibility:
Haj is proud that after “decades of conversation,” a new union contract with production staff will achieve pay equity between the female-dominated costume and wig shops and the male-dominated scene and prop shops, which had been paid more. But some employees say it took too long to get there. Equity won’t be achieved until the final year of the four-year contract.
“We should expect more from the Guthrie,” said Haj. “It is one of the most significant not-for-profit theaters in the country. I think we should be looked to for best practices.”
On diversity on stage:
“I don’t think we’ve solved anything but we’ve set out to make the organization and the art-making more inclusive,” said Haj. “There’s much work left to be done. We’re continually thinking: What about this community?”
On people of color feeling tokenized at the Guthrie:
Haj changed the Guthrie’s hiring policy to require a diverse field for every open position. But some candidates of color say they felt they were not seriously considered.
“Most people don’t get the job,” Haj said in response to that criticism. “I’m casting a show and here comes 100 actors who want to play Riff [in ‘West Side Story’]. I’m going to choose one and 99 people are going to go home saying: a) I hate that guy, and b) It’s because I sang the wrong song or he doesn’t like blondes or whatever. By insisting on a diverse and qualified pool, sometimes we are getting diverse and qualified candidates into these roles who we would not have seen without this policy. Of that, I am 100 percent certain.”
On the possibility of restructuring the Guthrie’s top jobs:
Before the tenure of Haj’s predecessors Joe Dowling and Garland Wright, the Guthrie’s managing director was a co-equal who reported directly to the board. Bielstein, who reported to Haj, cited this as an attraction in taking her new job as executive director of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“The Guthrie has worked over its 55-year history with both models,” said Aronson, “but for the last 30-ish years, we’ve been in a single-leader model. So our feeling as a board right now is that’s the model we prefer. Does it mean someday we won’t change again? We can have that debate. We’re not really having that debate right now.”
On whether he foresaw the challenge of moving from PlayMakers Repertory Company to the larger Guthrie:
“The things I think about as an artist and leader, they actually don’t change,” said Haj. “You’re the same idiot you were when you were running a smaller organization. When the organization gets 10 times bigger, you don’t get 10 times smarter.”
The biggest difference, he said, is that at PlayMakers he could get a read on an idea in one workday. Not so at the Guthrie. “Here, the senior team can decide this is the way we want to go, and I have to trust that that message is being driven all the way down through the organization and then the feedback comes back up to me.”
On whether it’s tough to stay engaged with a larger staff:
“On a human-being level, yeah,” he said. “I value the people who work in this organization enormously and I want to know each of them far better than I actually can. We’re trying to do more: all-staffs and communication and a picnic outside. Places where we can all gather as an organization, but they’re infrequent and few and it’s missed by everyone.”
On delays in production:
Employees say construction and design work bumped up against opening nights on some shows this season.
With 10 plays in the 2017-18 schedule, “we had a huge year,” Haj said. “Maybe the largest number of artists ever — huge-cast plays, huge technical plays. An enormous season for our shops. Yeah, it’s not an unfair characterization to say a couple of those plays were behind schedule.
“We often pride ourselves that when we get to the first preview [performance], the show is fundamentally done, but we do the five previews so we can make things better. And some of our plays don’t get dialed in until that third, fourth, fifth preview.”
There will be one fewer show next season. Haj said they “reworked that production calendar to see if there is a better cadence and flow, so there is a fallow time, some time for maintenance, cleanup, time to breathe and relax a bit, as opposed to: Get to the end of the year and collapse in a heap.”
On what he’s proudest of:
“I love [the Dowling Studio’s] ideas around access and the $9 ticket price,” said Haj. “I’m terrifically proud of our education and outreach efforts. We know, more and more, the arts are being stripped out of public schools, so we think we have an important role to play.
“I’m proud that our longtime Guthrie audiences have stayed with us, even as we have attracted different audiences who have not historically come to the theater.”
On speeding up the Guthrie:
Haj said it typically takes the theater 10 to 18 months to get from idea to action. “If something happens that we want to respond to, this organization has had a great deal of trouble historically. You can’t say, ‘Forget it. We won’t do “Watch on the Rhine.” But we can say, ‘Hey, Charlottesville happened. We’ll have an event in our lobby on Saturday night, a community conversation and performances by the cast.’ ”
The Guthrie did just that, “and we had 240 people in our lobby six days later,” he said. “That, for the Guthrie, is like time travel.”
On whether he’s having fun:
“Everything that I wrestle with — maybe especially the things that are most hard — are in some ways deeply fulfilling to me to try to pursue,” said Haj. “So am I happy? Am I gleeful all the time? No. I don’t feel that. But I don’t think I’m wired like that. I derive enormous, enormous satisfaction from this job, and I continue to.”