Local director, global impact

Haley Finn. Photo by Susan Schaefer
Haley Finn. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

In troubled times, when hate fills the news headlines, the value of the arts is sometimes questioned. Uptown Minneapolis resident Haley Finn has potent firsthand experience to counter such misperceptions. Theater, she affirms, is transformative.

Finn directed an adaptation of “Why We Laugh,” a cabaret written by artists in the World War II Terezin Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia. In a rare opportunity, she experienced the impact of the play on actual survivors and their families when a revival was staged in the city of Terezin itself. Celebrated local playwright Kira Obolensky, Finn’s friend and collaborator, had adapted the play, and Craig Harris, lauded local composer, adapted and created original music. 

The Terezin cabaret had been discovered in 2005 in family archives. The Germans had used the Terezin camp for propaganda purposes to show a “model Jewish settlement.” In reality, it was a concentration camp where thousands died. 

“We performed that play in Terezin and there were survivors as well as their family members in the audience,” Finn recalls. “The play was about the power of theater, and in particular comedy, to lift the human spirit as a way to survive. I can’t begin to describe how powerful the experience was — to be able to connect with such deep and basic reasons for why the arts are essential.” 

I caught a production of “Why We Laugh” staged at Open Eye Theater a few years back, and the audience was struck by what it must have been like to act and sing and dance in the midst of the stark horror of the Holocaust. 

Mighty Finn

Quiet and thoughtful, Finn, associate artistic director at the Playwrights’ Center, located in the heart of the Seward Neighborhood, possesses a youthful demeanor that can be quite deceptive. Her colleague, the formidable producing artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center, Jeremy Cohen, corrects that impression: “Hayley is an extraordinary leader — as an artistic producer, a mentor, a community leader and a brilliant artist in the rehearsal room.” 

Cohen hails Finn as “one of the great leaders on our team who endeavors to keep the Playwrights’ Center curious and leaning forward into our work. Hayley is thoughtful, precise, and is always happiest when surrounded by a room full of artists, making work … (and) connecting about process. Hayley pushes form in compelling ways.” 

“I’ve had the opportunity to see work she’s directed as well as co-created. A couple years ago, her piece, ‘Private Party,’ co-created with her creative partner and husband, Andrew Dolan, at the Red Eye Theatre, took my breath away. It was an immersive/multi-experience piece that truly mined the depths of connections and disconnections in a stunning way,” he concludes.

Indeed, Finn’s work is highly acclaimed throughout the theater sphere. She is a recipient of a number of directing fellowships, including the prestigious Ruth Easton Directing Fellowship, and has directed the New York premieres of works by Sheila Callaghan, including “Katecrackernuts” at The Flea Theater, “Scab” at the Greenwich Street Theater and “Metal” at the Here Arts Center. And she has assistant-directed numerous plays on and off Broadway, including the Tony Award winning productions of “A View From the Bridge” and “Side Man.” 

Big Apple to Mini Apple

Finn exudes theater from her core. And that core was grown in the heart of the Big Apple. She grew up center stage New York theatrical — surrounded by a family that had a deep appreciation for the arts in general and theater in particular. She describes her mother taking her to the theater at a very young age.

“Living in NYC,” she understates, “we had access to amazing theater productions.” 

In fact, Finn’s mother had studied acting but opted for a life as a teacher, “which was, of course, more practical.” Appropriately, her now retired mother has joined a theater company in NYC and is writing plays, reversing the old expression, “The apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree!”

The truth is, theater was and is a whole Finn family affair. As a young child, Finn created theater productions in her grandmother’s basement, using found objects for sets and costumes: “An old lampshade became a hat, a recorder a magic wand, clothes line and sheets made up the curtains.” By age nine, Finn became a regular contestant on CBS’ “Child’s Play” game show, where for a year she described words that adults had to guess. That led to acquiring an agent and acting.

“By the time I was in high school,” Finn relates, “I was taking classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute and playing Cordelia in the school play. It was my high school English teacher who suggested I direct, and the first thing I directed was ‘Macbeth’ in the school boiler room basement — dried ice and the works!”

So, what stage direction catapulted Finn from Great White Way up here to the Great Whiteout?  

“I was originally brought to the Twin Cities because of my work as a freelance director,” she explains. “I had been asked to direct Mac Wellman’s McKnight commissioned play at the Playwrights’ Center and was invited back for other projects. I then received a fellowship through the Playwrights’ Center and was hired on.”

And how does Minneapolis compare to working in New York City? Finn waxes effusive about our creative class: “Minneapolis is a wonderful city for the arts,” she contends. “The arts are appreciated and funded. It’s a city filled with people who know about theater and enjoy attending it.” 

One detail in particular is telltale: “When I say I’m a director, people assume I’m a theater director rather than a director for film or TV.” She comments, as have other creative class members profiled here, about the benefit of foundations like the McKnight and Jerome that so the value the arts.

“Philanthropy is a value of Twin Cities, and therefore, the arts are able to thrive,” she notes. 

Theater continues to be very much a family affair with Finn. The new mother (baby Eames is her proudest production thus far) is married to fellow theater artist, Andrew Dolan. “My husband and I met while we were both part of the New Works program at the Red Eye — an important home for both of us artistically and personally.” Not only is it where they met, it’s where Andrew proposed! Finn grins, “It’s a real gift when you can share your life with someone who also shares your artistic passion.” The two enjoy working together and last year co-created “While You Were Out,” which fittingly premiered at The Red Eye.

Haley Finn
Haley Finn. Photo by Susan Schaefer

A storytelling incubator

There are only a handful of organizations in the country (and in the world for that matter) that develop new plays. The Playwrights’ Center is unique among even that small group because it supports writers at all stages of development. Anyone can become a member. The Center offers fellowships to emerging and mid-career playwrights, supports the development of work by national and local playwrights, and helps connect those playwrights with production opportunities. It is an organization, like so many others in the Twin Cities, which places us firmly on the national map.

Being a part of this rare organization is a point of pride and satisfaction for Finn.

“We open our doors so anyone can see readings of new plays — there is never an admission charge,” she explains. This situation is a win-win for both audiences and artists alike.

For Finn, her work there truly is central to her core being.

“Getting a peek into the creative process is thrilling — the readings are performed by the top actors in the Twin Cities and many of the playwrights are nationally recognized writers or soon to be. The plays developed at the center go onto be performed in theaters around the country,” she explains.

In fact, there are at least a couple of plays being produced in town next season that were developed at the center: “The Great Leap,” by Lauren Yee, at the Guthrie, and “West Of Central,” by Christina Ham, which Finn will be directing at Pillsbury House Theatre in September.

The new play’s the thing

Finn has earned a reputation as the go-to new play developer/director. Such a skill takes certain savoir-faire — a finesse that enables her to co-create from sheer imagination into being. I wondered why she focused on this aspect of theater making and how it differs from working from a well-established script/play?

“I believe that we should support stories that reflect our times, and the natural way to do that is by supporting playwrights who write those stories, producing those plays. Personally, I love directing new work because you have the benefit of having the writer in the room,” she emphasizes. “I’ve always loved collaborations — it is one the reasons I’m in the theater — so having the chance to collaborate with the writer as well as the actors and designers is thrilling.”

While Finn originally was attracted to the classics, she says she was fortunate to have Paula Vogel as her teacher at Brown University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Vogel brought in a very talented group of writers as part of the program, and through that experience Finn was drawn into directing new work. 

“When I left college, I became a directing resident at Playwrights’ Horizons in NYC that specializes in new work,” she states.

While still in New York, she developed influential and long-term relationships with playwrights, and that allowed her to start directing regularly in the off Broadway and the off-off Broadway scene.

Finn continues to direct and collaborate out of town. But for those who would like to experience her work here in our own backyard, she will be directing “Night, Mother,” a Dark and Stormy Production at the Grain Belt warehouse, opening Aug. 16 and, starring our own beloved Sally Wingert and Sara Marsh, and Christina Ham’s world premiere of “West of Central,” which opens Sept. 14 at Pillsbury House Theatre.