Guthrie Theater names Joseph Haj new artistic director

Joseph Haj
Joseph Haj was named the new artistic director of the Guthrie Theater on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Updated 3:45 p.m. | Posted 10:36 a.m.

The Guthrie Theater said Tuesday that Joseph Haj will be its new artistic director.

Haj, 51, is the producing artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C. He takes over in July as the Guthrie's eighth artistic leader, succeeding Joe Dowling, who spent two decades at the theater.

Haj said he believes the theater can find a balance between performing classic productions and producing new work.

There's only one reason to have a theater and that's to build a better community, he added. Theater "makes a community bigger, saner, kinder, more empathetic."

He'll take control of one of the country's largest regional theaters. With an annual budget of nearly $26 million, the Guthrie dwarfs the theater Haj runs in North Carolina.

"Running an organization that is ten times the size of the organization I currently lead is a great challenge," Haj acknowledged Tuesday. "I'm not scared of it on the face of it."

Dowling is directing three final plays at the theater, including "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is running now. He's previously served as artistic director of Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland.

Joe Dowling
Joe Dowling
Ann Marsden | For MPR News 2010

His Minnesota tenure has included collaborations with artists including Christopher Hampton, Roger Rees and Lisa Peterson. The theater was criticized by some during its 50th season for not having more women or people of color writing or directing plays.

The Guthrie Theater was founded in 1963. The theater focuses largely on classic productions. It's been recognized as one of the most successful regional theaters in the United States and was the recipient of a Tony Award in 1982.

The Guthrie moved into its new $125 million facility near the Mississippi River in 2006. The building includes three separate theaters and hosts an estimated 400,000 patrons every year.

The Guthrie Theater
The Guthrie Theater can find a balance between performing classic productions and producing new work, according to Joseph Haj, the organization's new artistic director.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

"The Guthrie has to be a lot of things to a lot of people," Haj said.

The son of Palestinian immigrants, Haj comes from modest roots. He grew up in public housing.

He is one of the few Arab-American artistic directors in the country and says he'll bring with him a commitment to diversity.

"Hiring women and people of color is not one of the hard parts of the job," he said. "Diversity is going to be a core part of my leadership of the Guthrie as it has been in my leadership at Playmakers."

Haj has also taken theater to unusual places, directing shows at maximum-security prisons in Los Angeles, South Carolina and the West Bank and Gaza.

Actor Nathaniel Fuller said he'd like to see the theater continue to produce quality work.

"It would be fun to see some new work develop that will go on and be recognized," Fuller said. "But I think they owe it to the region to keep doing the classics, keep doing the American classics, and do them well."

Donor Kathleen Adix said she's impressed with Haj's background and enthusiasm about the theater.

"I just want it to continue to be a living institution and continue to take on challenges, while at the same time staying financially solvent," Adix said.

Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, called Haj's selection great news for the Twin Cities. She described Haj as a collaborative leader who's open to conversation.

Standing on the proscenium stage before an audience of primarily staff and donors, Haj recalled the first time he worked at the Guthrie Theater, 25 years ago, under then director Garland Wright.

"It was at the Guthrie that I learned plays could carry meaning beyond narrative. It was at the Guthrie I learned that theater can be part of a civic conversation," he said. "It was at the Guthrie that I learned what belonging to a great arts organization looks like and feels like."

Haj plans to move to the Twin Cities later this year with his wife and 14-year-old daughter. He said he'll spend the next several months embarking on what he calls a "discovery period" before taking over from Dowling.

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