A Guthrie for all Minnesotans

A conversation with Joe Haj on his upcoming first full season at Guthrie Theater

Guthrie Theater artistic director Joe Haj. Submitted photo

Joe Haj is settling into Minneapolis with his family, relieved that their first Minnesota winter was an easy one and preparing for his inaugural season as Guthrie Theater’s new artistic director.

Opening in September, the 2016-2017 Guthrie season is the first designed top-to-bottom by Haj, who took over July 1 from former artistic director Joe Dowling. Since he arrived last summer from the PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina, Haj has spent time traveling the state and learning that the Guthrie is beloved by many Minnesotans but for many different reasons.

“Everybody wants the Guthrie to be important in their lives, but everybody has a different idea of what the Guthrie ought to be or wants from them,” he said.

Haj’s directorial debut on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, “Pericles,” closed in February. He returns to that stage in the upcoming season to direct Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” opening Feb. 11, as well 1984 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Sunday in the Park with George,” opening June 17.

The 2016–2017 season features two literary adaptations — “The Bluest Eye,” based on a 1970 Toni Morrison Novel, and Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” directed by new Jungle Theater Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen — and a world premiere in “Refugia” by The Moving Company, the successor to Minneapolis’ legendary Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

“The Lion in Winter,” a historical comedy best known from the 1968 screen adaptation starring Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, is scheduled on the McGuire Proscenium Stage as counter-programming, of sorts, to the Guthrie’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” on the Wurtele Thrust.

Rounding out the main-stage season are “The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders,” “The Royal Family” and “Native Gardens.” Yet to be announced are plans for the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio experimental space.

In March, Haj spoke briefly over the phone with the Southwest Journal. What follows are highlights of an edited and condensed conversation.

SWJ: I recently saw your production of ‘Pericles.’ Tell me, what in that makes it a Joe Haj production?

Joe Haj: Oh, gosh. You’ll have to ask other people. I don’t know.

I love that play. I’ve loved it for many, many, many years. I’ve made productions of it in the past. Its themes of redemption and forgiveness I find very, very beautiful. …

I guess I will only say any visit of the classics is, for me, a contemporary exercise — not because we put everyone in business suits, but because the only reason to visit those classic plays is because we really believe they have something resonant and relevant to say today. And that’s my focus on any classical work, and I hope some of that came through in ‘Pericles.’

With this upcoming season, are you intending to make your mark or make a statement as the new artistic director?

My focus is not about leaving a mark. So, in the same way that I don’t think ‘Pericles’ tells us everything about my artistry, I don’t think one season tells us everything about what we all want to do around here over time.

This is a theater that needs to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and ensuring we had a season that was plural in its perspective, that has a range of classical and contemporary work and a world premier and a musical allows us to be fully of service to this community.

You said that you’ve spent some time reaching out to the community, finding out what they want from the Guthrie Theater. What have you heard, and how has that changed or enhanced your perception of the Guthrie as an institution?

That’s a great question because of course it inflected the very question about the programming itself.

What I’ve learned no matter where I’ve gone, either in the Cities or around the state in greater Minnesota, what I’ve learned the most is there is an enormous sense of ownership of the Guthrie. … Whether they’re in Mankato or Duluth, this is their theater. …

There isn’t a Guthrie audience that can all be pressed through a single funnel. You have people who have different interests. And we hope folks will come to the things that satisfy them most and also perhaps test themselves or challenge themselves with some of the other work in the season that doesn’t fit as specifically in the area of what they understand themselves to love the most.

Is there anything in this season that you’re doing that maybe your predecessor wouldn’t have done?

No. Again, I don’t know how to think about it that way. I’m building on an extraordinary (legacy) that Joe (Dowling) has left and, indeed, all the other artistic directors in that long continuum.

I think I’m just building on some of those ideas, and, obviously, my own artistry, my own curation, my own ideas of texts that I love or that I think the community will respond to. I’m a different artist that Michael Langham or Sir Tyrone Guthrie or Garland (Wright) or (Liviu) Ciulei or Joe Dowling or any of them, so of course the season reflects my own tastes and my own curatorial view.

The Guthrie Theater 2016–2017 season
When: Tickets go on sale May 19
Where: The Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St.
Info: guthrietheater.org, 225-6238