The desk is in the same place Joe Dowling left it and the comfortable “conversation chairs” still ring a glass coffee table. But the man who greets visitors in the Guthrie Theater artistic director’s office is Joe Haj, who slid behind the desk July 1 and now leads the company into the 2015-16 season.
Haj is adjusting to life in Minnesota, getting his family settled into a Minneapolis home, enjoying the bike trails, catching a baseball game at Target Field and doing as much listening as he can. In an hourlong interview, Haj said that he is changing the leadership structure of the organization, looking forward to selecting his first full season in 2016-17 (he and Dowling share credit for this year) and finding the artistic balance to satisfy the many constituencies of one of the nation’s largest regional theaters.
Q: What is your main activity right now?
A: What I need most is a listening tour to get a clear sense of what’s valued here, with the staff, board members, theater community, broader community. To educate me, tell me who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going next. I’ve met with everyone in the organization in small groups, asking them two things: “What do I love about this place, and what challenges do we face?”
Q: What do they say?
A: There is this sense of the building — and I want to say this correctly — there is unbelievable civic pride in this organization and in this building. I have seen that. But then I compare that pride with this sense of opacity that people talk about. They say: It’s a hard building. I was at the [Minneapolis Institute of Art] gala and people were saying, “What do you do about that building over there?” And I was thinking, “This [the MIA] is a place carved out of a piece of stone!”
I think it’s not just the building, it’s something about live theater and the human-scale experience in this building. I’m very interested in what we do to make the walls here more porous. What do we do in connecting this building and the community we serve.
Q: How are you changing the Guthrie’s staff and structure?
A: Joe Dowling was the director and had four direct reports — production, external affairs, administration and development. The heads of production and external affairs gave notice they were leaving before I arrived. It had been my desire to go a year before changing, but that got accelerated.
I want to combine administration and external affairs and hire a managing director. We’re searching for that candidate. That makes a job that is more of a standard profile in theater management. Then we have development [Danielle St. Germain-Gordon], production and an associate artistic director [a position he filled with Jeff Meanza, who previously held that post under Haj at PlayMakers Rep in Chapel Hill, N.C.].
You know, I don’t care about structure that much. I’m co-equal with all of them but there has to be a place where the buck stops. We all understand that.
Q: How much of this season consists of shows you picked?
A: Something less than half. Joe [Dowling] called immediately after I was selected and said, “These things are in place, but if there’s something you really hate, let’s talk.” He was very gracious in involving me. “Mockingbird” was already in place, so was “The Events,” “Cocoanuts,” “South Pacific.” “Pericles,” of course, is mine.
Q: “South Pacific” isn’t yours but you chose to direct it?
A: It’s a terrifically challenging musical. Those guys, writing in 1948, were so progressive — even transgressive — with themes that I’m interested in. It’s not a buoyant musical. At its bottom, it has a deeply political edge.
Q: Do you have to balance the tastes of the Guthrie’s audience — which is older, more suburban — with the theater community, which pushes for stuff that might be considered more difficult and not always broadly popular?
A: I don’t think those are binary groups, so I challenge the question. They are additive to each other. A sophisticated audience is interested in all that work. The Guthrie is a classical theater. That’s in our DNA and classical is going to mean largely Western European and American canons and largely from white male playwrights. But who do we ask to frame those stories, whose lens do we want to see those stories through, whose experience? The further we involve people in the community, the further we involve the people who are our patrons.
Q: But there is the very real challenge of filling seats.
A: Of course. We have 2,000 seats to move when all three theaters are running and the most immaculately produced staging of “Bacchae” will always lose to even the worst production of “My Fair Lady.” [Laughs.] But we can give great, sophisticated productions that bring in a cross-section of a broad group of people.
Q: What do you think about the Guthrie’s inability to transfer its own productions to Broadway?
A: Broadway is no Holy Grail for me. Have you seen what’s on Broadway? The tail can’t wag the dog; it’s not what a nonprofit theater should chase. That said, if we wanted to make something that serves our community and would also appeal to a broader community, I’d be thrilled if it went to New York. And there’s more to New York than just Broadway, many theaters that fit our profile better.
Q: What about new work? Everyone says they want new work, but not everyone comes to see it, do they?
A: That’s perfect. [Laughs.] You can quote yourself on that. The Guthrie must participate in the new play sphere but we have to ask how we can be additive. We don’t need another play generator here. We’ve got Jeremy Cohen over at the Playwrights’ Center. They do that.
Q: Outside the theater, what do you like about this community?
A: The bike trail system, how much it means to people to be outside and the commitment to that, even though you have to stay indoors eight months a year. I was able to get on a trail near our home and ride all the way to the Mississippi River. I mean, in what city can you do that? Also, I was warned about “Minnesota Nice,” that passive-aggressive manner, but I have been astonished at how genuinely nice, warm and supportive people have been.
In the arts, you just don’t see the commitment [elsewhere] that you see in the Twin Cities. I’m not sure what to attribute that to, but it was startling to see how much this region is committed to its theater. It’s not like this in other places.
Q: Is the Guthrie at its full, mature size?
A: We’re not a for-profit corporation that has to report a profit to shareholders. It’s not in our mission. We have to ensure that we have the money to do the art that fulfills our mission. In the corporate world, money is the metric on both ends. In the nonprofit world, money is more about the front end. What you have achieved with the art is on the back end. If I were to say I want to take the Guthrie to be a $50 million theater, that would not describe at all what our mission is.
Q: About that mission: It has evolved since Tyrone Guthrie’s day. What’s your vision?
A: We’re having an all-staff meeting Sept. 23 where I’ll outline a vision. We’re not changing the mission. An artistic director’s statement is a values statement — what are our core values. So that will include, “This is what I know so far, what we hold dear, and how we might affect what we hold dear.” Then I want to undergo an 18-month interrogation of our mission, to determine who and what we want to be.
Q: Are you working on the 2016-17 season yet?
A: Yes. We’re dreaming up the future. My real hope is two things: We have a long runway so we can get some of the artists we want, because dance cards fill up fast, and then we want to be able to strike fast when something good comes along, so we need to keep some spots open. I’m excited about this season, and 2016-17 will give you a better picture of my curatorial view.