A theater and its community meet on Level Nine

The Guthrie Theater’s Joe Haj on his Level Nine Initiative

Guthrie Theater artistic director Joe Haj. Submitted photo

It’s been almost six months since the Guthrie Theater announced a $1-million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support its Level Nine Initiative, Artistic Director Joseph Haj’s plan to carve out a space in the institution for urgent, engaged theater that grapples with current events as they happen.

In August, the theater hosted free performances of Mike Daisey’s “The Trump Card” and Carlyle Brown’s “Acting Black” — both of them examples of Haj’s vision for ninth-floor “happenings” that respond to ongoing community conversations (about the election and the roots of American racism, respectively). The new season in the 200-seat, black-box Dowling Studio that launches Oct. 7 with Jeanne Sakata’s “We Hold These Truths,” a one man show about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is the first since the Level Nine Initiative slashed ticket prices in that space to just $9 — which Haj likes to point out is cheaper than a movie ticket.

As Haj explained in a conversation with The Journal in September, ticket prices are one of those barriers that prevent some community members from engaging in the theater’s work, and the Level Nine Initiative is all about moving those barriers out of the way.


THE JOURNAL: The Guthrie Theater serves this wide and varied audience, and different people want different things out of the theater. How does the Level Nine Initiative respond to those very different needs and interests?

HAJ: We have nearly 400,000 people come through the doors annually and, indeed, they don’t all want the same thing from the Guthrie. This idea that there’s a Guthrie audience that can be poured through a single funnel, I’m just learning, is really not accurate.

The two big rooms — one is 1,100 seats, the Wurtele Thrust Stage, and the McGuire Proscenium Stage is 700 seats — they’re not the most intimate spaces. They’re not the sorts of spaces where you can take enormous risks — certainly nothing that goes into the main stage season. They’re real challenges.

The place that I felt could be a place of experimentation in terms of aesthetics, form, theme would be the Ninth Floor. The Level Nine Initiative is really taking the idea of the former artistic director Liviu Ciulei who said that a community can be measured by the questions its theater asks.

And that became the founding idea of everything we wanted to do up there, about making it a kind of agora, to use the Greek phrase — a civic space, a place of dialogue, a place to wrestle with ideas.

We are an organization that is terrifically good at, Oh, here’s an idea, we want to make a play — and, you know, 23 months from now having something on the board. But what we’re not good at is: This is what’s happening in our community today, can we, two-and-a-half weeks from now, have something on stage that we can be in the room with and then respond to as a community?


How does the mission of Level 9 influence the programming of the Dowling Studio?

Everything in the Dowling Studio, now, is through the lens of this Level Nine Initiative, which is to say — whether they are Guthrie produced or presented shows, whether these are inviting our colleagues around the Twin Cities, around the state to make work with us — we’re selecting, we’re choosing our partners with the agreement and understanding that it’s work that is worthy of a conversation and those artists and creators and teams are interested in having a community component as an added part of the work that’s being done.

So, in fact, everything that happens on Level 9, everything that is ticketed, is at a $9 price point. All happenings are free.

I think we flatter ourselves in the theater field if we think the only reason people aren’t coming is the price point. To be very clear, I don’t think it’s the only barrier to entry. I’m not even sure it’s the principal barrier to entry. But we all know it’s a barrier to entry, and all we seek to do in these organizations is lower barriers to participation.


It may be too early to say, but are you having any success drawing in new audiences?

With “The Trump Card,” Mike Daisey’s monologue, we didn’t expect we would say, “Oh, there’s a happening,” and within 90 minutes both performances were sold out. And many of the people who reserved their place to come and see it are some of the people who are already closest to us and most inclined.

We’re doing some of this work in order to be available for cross sections of our community that don’t always participate for one reason or another in the Guthrie’s work, and we are still at the front end of learning how to do that most effectively.

It’s a great question. Again, much of this, and the three-year funding from Mellon, is our opportunity to learn. It’s our opportunity to test our own ideas about what it means to seek a deeper engagement with our community and a new engagement with some of our community that hasn’t participated. We’re still at the front end of it.


Talk about the “happenings” that take place on the ninth floor. How will this space be activated beyond just plays and performances?

Coming out of the Philando Castile moment here in the Twin cities, we thought: Look, we need to figure out a forum to have a community conversation around this.

And so it came to Carlyle Brown and “Acting Black,” and we thought: This will be great. This is a way for us to have this playwright-artist-thinker in the room with us, and a piece of art is made and shared and a community conversation (happens) around it.

Mike Daisey and “The Trump Card,” again, as we are just a few weeks away from a presidential election, is a look at a candidate who is so unlike any candidate we’ve seen in living memory.


Thank you very much, Joe. Anything else you wanted to add about the space, about the initiative?

Only that one of our goals with all of the half-dozen spokes of the Level Nine Initiative — I mean, choose your metaphor; it’s a multi-pronged effort — they’re really all to test some ideas about what a theater wants to be, what our theater wants to be, and I’m really interested to see if there are lessons to be learned on that ninth floor that can’t indeed apply to our two larger spaces, as well.

That sort of allowing level nine to be a bit of the R&D portion of the Guthrie’s work, a way to test some ideas, is just really exciting to me.