Joe Haj is getting familiar with Minnesota’s winding roads.
In an endeavor that is rare for a new arts leader, Haj is exercising his knack for using theater to bring communities together and to reinscribe the Guthrie Theater’s importance as Minnesota’s flagship playhouse.
Since he became the Guthrie’s artistic director in July, Haj has logged hundreds of miles crisscrossing the state — from Duluth to Rochester, Mankato to Winona.
“I have this tremendous responsibility to take good care of the Guthrie,” he said at a recent event in Northfield. “My task is not to [mess] it up.”
These events, attended by patrons and would-be supporters in business attire as well as sports team paraphernalia, are as much about introducing Minnesotans to the new face of the Guthrie as they are about educating Haj about the state’s people, stories and 10,000 lakes.
Beneath all of the questions that he has fielded, Haj recognizes a deep care for the theater that Minnesotans sacrificed to build. After talking to about 100 people at Carleton College, Haj recalled how the theater’s founders similarly traveled the state in 1963 in hopes of raising $900,000 — and ended up with $2.2 million, including $6.37 from a Sunday school in Mankato.
“The people of this state own this theater,” Haj said. “The big question for us is how to serve the state in a way that someone from Duluth can find the same value in our work as someone who lives in one of those condos right next to us.”
For Haj, the takeaway from these sessions is the depth of the passion in a state with a laid-back reputation. The people, he said, value the arts because they know, deep down, that such shared experiences strengthen our community bonds and ennoble us.
“We, all of us, are only here for an instant,” he said. “How we spend that time, amidst what beauty, what empathy, what love, is perhaps the ultimate question. The fact that we existed, worked like drones, bought a few things, and then died is not a life well-spent. The arts remind us why we live. They also remind us how we live.”
Haj sometimes sounds like a spiritual leader as well as an arts advocate. He recalled at Carleton that the first play in the Western canon, Aeschylus’ “The Persians,” was written by a soldier not to glorify his side’s victory over the Persians but to empathize with the defeated, with the grieving mothers and new widows.
“Some part of what we do lives in such a powerful place, such a holy place, a sacred place,” he said.
Questioners wondered aloud about the relevance of a show like “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
“All shows have to speak to us today,” Haj said, noting that Atticus Finch’s only purpose in that production was to assert that “Black Lives Matter.”
Another query centered on his vision for plays like “Wrestling Jerusalem,” which tackled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A Palestinian-American married to film festival director Deirdre Haj, who is Jewish, Haj introduces himself to audiences with his compelling personal story, including his disaffected youth in Miami, where theater, he said, literally saved his life. The personal details — about the excitement and focus he found in the arts that allowed him to finish college early and enlarge his capacity as a human being — are the testimony of a true believer.
At Carleton, he offered himself as a living embodiment of the transformative power of art.
A clarifying vision
In the Northfield audience was Jan Shoger, a retired St. Olaf College professor. She recalled hearing Tyrone Guthrie rhapsodize about his vision for a new theater in Minnesota 55 years ago, so she was eager to hear what Haj, the newest leader in the Guthrie lineage, had to say about his dreams for the theater.
“Joseph is so articulate, so honest and forthright about his ideas,” said Shoger, who with her recently departed husband, Ross, attended the theater since those earliest days with Guthrie. “He has to walk the razor’s edge between classic and familiar pieces. We appreciate that because we want to see stuff that wakes us up and makes us think.”
Many others from the crowd at Tuesday’s forum said the theater’s new boss is up to the task of keeping or renewing the Guthrie’s relevance to them.
“The job is like boldly walking on a tightrope and I’m impressed by his thoughtfulness, his skill and his vision,” said Paul Thiboutot, vice president and dean of admissions at Carleton, who asked Haj questions about financing, actor training and keeping the theater vibrantly healthy.
At the end of the evening, Haj headed to a reception with some donors. He said he was both buoyed by the deep-seated affection and care that he finds repeatedly for the Guthrie, and daunted by his challenge as he leads the theater in a world made fractious, and richer, by diverse populations, by technological innovation and the big changes roiling society.
But Haj is very hopeful, especially about the theater. Young people, he asserted, “seem far more interested in making a life that is rich than in becoming rich for its own very weak and insecure claim to happiness,” he said. “I am so honored [to lead the theater] as we build on the Guthrie’s storied past and begin to write the next chapter.”