The new artistic director of the Guthrie Theater sums up his message to potential audience members this way: "Look, it's art! We are making art," said Joseph Haj. "If you want to sit and watch reruns of 'ALF,' I can't compete with that. We are making theater."
Haj took over from former director Joe Dowling earlier this summer. He told MPR News' Tom Weber that he believes he was selected for the job because of his experience and the vision he demonstrated in his past work, including at the PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"I've run a theater for the past nine years," he said. "We had some real success there. Some of that came to the attention of folks when the Guthrie was searching for candidates. Some of the things I value are in line with what the Guthrie thinks it wants for itself next."
He pointed to a challenge facing theaters all around the country: remaining relevant and diverse.
“It's a powerful, even transformational, art form. ... We go to the theater to open our eyes, to be made empathetic, to get bigger.”Joseph Haj
"In any of our largest organizations, you go to the theater, in almost every instance, perhaps in every instance, they are both older and whiter than the demographics of the town in which they reside," he said. "This is happening everywhere. So the diversity question is an enormous one. How do we reach out to still more diverse audiences? And I think it begins with the programming."
He isn't talking about ditching the classics, he said, but seeing the plays through the eyes of different people, whether actors, directors or audiences.
"So continuing to diversify both the programming, the artists we hire to make that work, and indeed our own administration, productions staffs and board," he said — "I think more diverse, plural voices simply make the work better. And so that's a focus."
Haj said the love Minnesotans have for the Guthrie is "a great gift," but he cautioned that it can't be seen as just another form of entertainment.
"It's a powerful, even transformational, art form," he said. "We go to the theater to open our eyes, to be made empathetic, to get bigger."
He sees plenty of challenges besides the need to reach diverse audiences. An obvious one is the need to run a theater with three stages and 2,000 seats.
"How do we program in such a way that each of those three rooms has its own identity?" he asked. "How we are having plays in conversation with one another? Because I think a great charge is to connect the work we do at the Guthrie really meaningfully with the communities we are charged to serve."
Haj wants to program plays that deal with the big issues in society, like racism and gun violence. Those are the subjects of work during his first season. The theater, he said, can provide a powerful venue "to wrestle with these very important questions. So I think sometimes, and regularly, we ought to be in those conversations."