The people have spoken. Joseph Haj’s first year at the helm of the Guthrie Theater is a hit.
The Guthrie filled 84 percent of its seats in the 2015-16 season, according to its annual report released Monday. Up from 76 percent the previous year, that figure is the highest in recent memory, averaged across 578 performances of 29 productions during the fiscal year that ended Aug. 31.
Haj’s staging last summer of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” became the highest grossing production in the Guthrie’s 53-year history. (The theater declined to release the exact figure.) It played to 97 percent of capacity, just shy of the 100 percent achieved by only three productions — “The Great Gatsby,” “Little House on the Prairie” and “My Fair Lady” — since the Guthrie moved to the Minneapolis riverfront in 2006.
Total attendance was 380,108, up 1,570 from the year before — essentially holding steady while the total number of performances was reduced in the name of efficiency. The theater finished the year in the black, with a slight operating surplus of $47,408 on its $28 million budget.
The numbers reflect positively on Haj, who succeeded longtime Guthrie director Joe Dowling in July 2015.
“We’ve had success across the board,” said managing director Jennifer Bielstein. “Within the first three months of taking over, Joe articulated a vision of artistic excellence, equity and inclusion, and financial responsibility. Those pillars have been the guideposts that have shaped things over the past year and will continue to be going forward.”
Haj has worked to broaden the Guthrie’s appeal, drawing in younger and increasingly diverse patrons while trying to raise the theater’s national profile. In terms of programming, the Guthrie has instituted a new “happening” series to allow for timely shows reflecting the zeitgeist or spirit of a particular period, such as Carlyle Brown’s “Acting Black” and the one-man show “The Trump Card.” The theater also won a $1 million Mellon Foundation grant for its Level Nine Initiative, which cut the price of a ticket to the ninth-floor Dowling Studio to $9.
Haj was unavailable for comment Monday because of a family emergency. But managing director Bielstein was ebullient.
“Our Level Nine Initiative tests how nimble and responsive our business model can be, given that we usually work a year to 18 months out,” she said. “We’re going into a strategic planning process, which doesn’t sound all that sexy, but with this type of footing is very exciting.”
Y. Marc Belton, former General Mills vice chairman, was elected to a second term as Guthrie board chairman.
“We’re gaining momentum, we’re building engagement and we’re poised to take the theater to the next level,” he said before taking the stage at Monday’s annual meeting.