The cool blue playhouse on Minneapolis’ riverfront buzzed with palpable electricity last weekend as patrons made their way to the three stages signaling the past, present and future of Joseph Haj’s Guthrie Theater.
On the thrust stage, Haj’s elegant staging of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” nodded to the company’s roots in the classics. In the proscenium theater, audiences laughed along to Broadway director Rachel Chavkin’s madcap production of “The Royal Family.” And upstairs in the experimental Dowling Studio, young people thronged to Jackie Sibblies Drury’s gut-punching, genocide-themed “We Are Proud to Present.”
This confluence of longtime ticket buyers and diverse young people represented a long-dreamed-of sweet spot for the region’s flagship playhouse as Haj heads into the home stretch of his second year as artistic director.
Some call it the “Haj effect” — a surge of goodwill that has boosted ticket sales and fundraising at the Guthrie while infusing his staff with fresh inspiration.
“We’re firing on all cylinders,” said board chairman Y. Marc Belton. “Joe is at the center of all of that.”
Less quantifiable, but no less important, is the hopeful energy his leadership is generating beyond the blue walls.
Building on a foundation laid by his predecessor Joe Dowling — a visionary leader who built the Guthrie’s new home but became somewhat isolated from his staff and the community by the end of his 20-year tenure — Haj is bringing new voices and more resonant programming into the mix.
He and his leadership team also are pressing the flesh in the community in ways that have been a pleasant surprise to Twin Cities arts leaders.
“What Joe is doing is so heartening because he could so easily rest on the theater’s laurels,” said Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director of the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis and one of several female directors that Haj has enlisted.
“The Guthrie is not just our flagship, but one of the flagships in the nation. Whatever they do, in terms of pushing goals or boundaries, taking aesthetic risks or broadening representation onstage, it ripples out to the larger community. That’s why we’re so excited for Joe.”
Audiences seem to be buying into Haj’s vision.
The Guthrie played to 84 percent of capacity last season, up from 76 percent the year before (a season largely programmed by Dowling) while the total number of donors increased 15 percent and the average gift rose 20 percent.
Yet Haj was hardly in a celebratory mood during a recent interview. Standing at his desk — he often works on his feet, as befits someone who started out as an actor — he looked the part of the tall, trim, pickup athlete he has been all his life.
At 53, he laments that he’s put on a few pounds. He hasn’t had much time for the gym, in part because he and his team are deep in strategic planning to assess the Guthrie’s impact on the lives of Minnesotans.
“My work is my life — I’m not modeling that well for my staff,” said Haj, who sometimes wishes he could walk down to the river to toss a football around with his production director, David Stewart.
What keeps him working late is the sense of obligation he feels as only the theater’s eighth artistic director since its founding in 1963 by legendary director Tyrone Guthrie.
“This is a deeply held community asset,” he said. “Everywhere I go, I see how much care and thought the Guthrie inspires. I’m both buoyed by that and humbled by the terrific responsibility to not fail.”
New atmosphere of openness
To see how far the Guthrie has come in 20 months, it is necessary to reflect on what Haj inherited.
Dowling left the theater in very good shape, but he was also a notorious micromanager who insisted on controlling all aspects of the operation and had a long memory for perceived slights. Haj, by contrast, hires top-notch people and lets them do their jobs. He has a thick skin, and invites critiques.
The atmosphere at the theater is noticeably less tense, from ushers to top managers.
“I feel like people’s shoulders have relaxed,” said Jeff Meanza, associate artistic director. “Joe is affable, with an open door, and even though he’s the senior leader, his way of working is not rigidly hierarchical. That touches all of us.”
Stewart calls Haj “our northern star” for his openness, sincerity and ability to listen. “We have this joke that if we took a shot [of booze] every time Joe said, ‘Hello, friend,’ we’d be under the table pretty quick.”
At the same time, staffers are loath to cast aspersions on the Dowling era. “What we’re doing now is built on the excellent foundation of those that came before us,” said managing director Jennifer Bielstein.
Marketing director Trish Kirk has a unique vantage point, having started as a box office assistant in 1985. “The biggest difference between Joe Haj and Joe Dowling is not between the two men but between where they are in their tenure,” she said. “Joe Haj has fresh eyes and fresh legs.”
Ask any random employee what the Guthrie’s core values are, and they can rattle them off: artistic excellence, fiscal responsibility, community engagement and a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion.
That may sound like corporate-speak, but to Sue Kotila it’s “thrilling.”
“People who avoided coming here for whatever reason in the past, including cost, feel more a sense of welcome now,” said Kotila, who is in charge of visitor services at the Guthrie. “And audiences are getting younger and more diverse.”
One key to that effort is a $1 million, three-year grant Haj secured last year from the Mellon Foundation for programming in the Dowling Studio. It supports a raft of experimental works, and has knocked down the price of admission to $9, making it competitive with movie tickets.
“People across the nation are watching keenly to see how he does with the studio,” said Jack Reuler, founder of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. “That’s just one way Joe has put the Guthrie front and center.”
Trying to connect with Minnesota
Haj has brought in a plethora of new talent while continuing to celebrate Twin Cities actors and directors, as Dowling did.
He has hired more female directors — nine in the current season — than the Guthrie employed in many years. He got Chavkin, who scored a Broadway smash with “The Great Comet,” to make her Guthrie debut. Last season Valerie Curtis-Newton became the first black woman to direct a mainstage Guthrie show (“Trouble in Mind”), while Patricia McGregor helmed “The Parchman Hour.” And the Jungle’s Rasmussen directed “Sense and Sensibility.”
“Joe has made it so that the talent of women directors is [treated as] normal at the Guthrie,” Rasmussen said. “And he’s invested in our success.”
He also is dedicated to presenting work that speaks to our unsettled times. The 2017-18 season he announced this month is a calculated balance of crowd-pleasers and risk-takers that, in one way or another, “hold a mirror up to society,” as he put it. A new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play “An Enemy of the People” is likely to reflect our “fake news” era, for example. And “Familiar,” a new Twin Cities-set play by Macalester grad and “Walking Dead” star Danai Gurira, will confront questions of multiculturalism.
To provide a forum for conversation, Haj has added more post-show discussions. Guthrie-goers say the changes have been invigorating.
“We like that he’s not just doing light entertainment, but plays that have substance,” said LaVonne Batalden, 75, a longtime subscriber and retired biology professor who came to the Dowling Studio last Sunday in a family group.
“We love that he has more women in leadership roles in the theater,” added her daughter, Sonja Batalden, 48, a nurse-midwife.
In his office overlooking the Stone Arch Bridge — a view made even more idyllic as the occasional eagle soared by — Haj said last fall’s elections were an eye opener as he and his staff try to imagine the theater’s future.
“I don’t know if I know 20 people who voted for Donald Trump,” he said. “And yet the Guthrie, a community asset built by the people of this great state, must serve all of us. So, we’re figuring out ways to do that, and do it well.”
He likes to recall a 1960s Sunday-school class from Mankato that mailed in a $6.37 contribution to the theater’s original building fund.
“The Guthrie has to be meaningful to Minnesotans if we’re to grow and thrive for the next 50 years,” he said.
“Beyond the transaction of tickets, people want to know how the Guthrie is going to matter to them. There’s a larger conversation about what the Guthrie will mean in their lives. And we want it to be a treasure.”