The Guthrie Theater scored good reviews Tuesday for its latest hire.
Jennifer Bielstein, who was named to the key role of managing director, comes to the Guthrie with national visibility after overseeing another regional flagship, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., for the past decade.
“She is one of the stars in our field right now,” said Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group in New York. “They were lucky to get her — it’s a real coup.” The Guthrie’s new artistic director, Joseph Haj, agrees that Bielstein’s appointment burnishes the Guthrie’s stature as one of the nation’s leading theaters.
“This is a great feather in our cap,” he said by phone after making the announcement.
With Bielstein, Haj — who succeeded Joe Dowling in July — has completed his management team. It retains the essential hierarchy of the Dowling era: a single artistic director with four direct reports. As managing director, though, Bielstein combines administrative and external affairs in one office.
In Bielstein, the Guthrie gets someone who brings skills in running a prominent regional theater that is host to one of the nation’s most prestigious new-play events, the Humana Festival. Marc Masterson, who was artistic director when Bielstein was hired at Louisville, cautioned that Haj will decide the artistic vision of the Guthrie, but that Bielstein has extensive knowledge of the logistics of a big festival with multiple stages — while at the same time managing a regular season.
“Balancing all that is her strength,” said Masterson, now artistic director at South Coast Repertory in Long Beach, Calif. “She will bring all of that to the table.”
Bielstein, 46, joined Actors Theatre in 2006 and managed finance, marketing, fundraising and general operations. The company has an annual budget of about $11 million, with an audience of 150,000. In comparison, the Guthrie’s most recent parallel figures were $29 million and 378,000 in attendance. Haj came to Minneapolis from PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C., which spends about $3 million annually.
Before landing in Louisville as managing director, Bielstein spent more than a decade at theaters in Chicago.
In an interview last October for the website StyleBlueprint, Bielstein said she “fell in love with the collaboration that is theater” as a high school student in Houston. She said in a statement released by the theater that “I have long admired the Guthrie’s work.”
The search for a managing director began shortly after Haj took over. He had known Bielstein from their work together on the League of Resident Theatres diversity task force and admired her abilities, principles and intelligence. While the Guthrie’s structure would indicate a single leader, Eyring suggested that because Bielstein is such a strong executive, a stronger partnership with Haj might evolve — similar to the relationship that former Guthrie managing director Ed Martenson enjoyed with Dowling’s predecessor, Garland Wright.
“I’m not that hung up on structure,” Haj said. “It’s the five of us who are responsible for the artistic output and financial health of the organization.”
More than anything else, Haj said he is eager to “put [the Guthrie] out to sea” now that he has his management team in place (three of the four leaders are new to the organization). At the same time, Haj is in the rehearsal hall for the first time since he came to Minnesota, directing a production of Shakespeare’s “Pericles,” which opens in previews Jan. 15.
“The Guthrie is making some good moves,” said Ralph Remington, former head of the National Endowment for the Arts’ theater and musical theater program. Bielstein is “thoughtful, smart and even-tempered,’’ he said. “She has a sharp intellect but doesn’t make everyone think that she’s the smartest person in the room — even though she very well may be. And she’s comfortable with people, whether they’re from a struggling farming community or $50,000 donors at the Guthrie.”
Staff writer Rohan Preston contributed to this report.