Future of Us: At the Guthrie, a 2,500-year-old art form learns to pivot

A person poses for a portrait
Joseph Haj, artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, poses for a portrait in Minneapolis on Dec. 14, 2022.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

This story is part of a series called “Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

In March 2020, Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Offices shuttered, daily commutes were limited to essential business, and the curtain fell on the Guthrie Theater’s 2019-2020 season. 

The following month, Artistic Director Joseph Haj would lay off more than 200 employees.

“The most horrible days that I've had in this job or any other job was when that difficult decision was made,” Haj said. “This was before we knew there was federal relief. This was before we knew that there was a vaccine. And my promise to myself then was: When we come back, we're going to get as many artists and administrators and production folks and staff back to work as we can.”

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Now the curtain is back up and the stage lights are on, but the industry isn’t what it used to be. Guthrie ticket sales last year for “A Christmas Carol,” a crowd favorite, were 4 percent below similar pre-pandemic holiday seasons, where weather and limited runs also depressed sales.

But Haj said theater isn’t going anywhere.

“If we wanted to look at the 2,500-year arc of the Western drama, it has survived much worse things than even the terrible, terrible time we have all lived through over the past nearly three years,” he said. “My worries and concerns are, of course, toward the near term: What's the next one year, three years, five years? But when it comes to theater itself, I have zero worries. I'm certain it will survive as it always has.”

“A Christmas Carol” at Guthrie.
“A Christmas Carol” returned to the Guthrie stage in 2021. But with winter COVID-19 surges and some audience members still wary of large gatherings, the holiday favorite hasn't drawn the same crowds as it used to.
Jenny Graham | Courtesy of Guthrie Theater

The process of getting the art form in front of audiences, though, has changed. And for the better, said Haj. 

“I came up in a generation where if you could fog a mirror, you got your tail on stage,” he said. “Like, ‘the show must go on’ was absolute. And now we have theater workers who want what any other worker in America wants, which is like, ‘I'm sick. I've got the flu. I've got a 102-degree fever. I've got body aches, and I'm not interested in the stories about how you went out on stage and in between scenes went off into the wings and vomited into a bucket and came back on.’ Nobody's interested in those conversations anymore.”

Hyunmin Rhee  and Eric Sharp are among the cast
Hyunmin Rhee (left) and Eric Sharp (right) perform in the Guthrie Theater's fall 2022 production of "Vietgone."
Courtesy of the Guthrie Theater | Dan Norman

And so, based on their own observations and talks with employee unions, the Guthrie and other theaters are working to understudy more roles and build bench strength for workers behind the scenes so that people can rest when they are sick.

Haj said the theater has also gotten more comfortable with uncertainty.

“Forget your 10-year strategic plan. Nobody knows what the next 10 years are going to look like,” he said. “The analogy I often use is, we can't see that further horizon right now. It's like driving your car at nighttime; you can't see beyond your headlights. But you can cross the whole country that way. So I think we've learned to be far more nimble, far more agile, far more flexible than we understood ourselves to be even a couple of years ago.”

For now, Haj said he believes that if the Guthrie continues to deliver productions at full scale, in much the same way it always has, audiences will return. But if that doesn’t pan out, he’ll use that newfound agility to pivot. He said it’s too important to fail.

“I think the collective act of gathering together to listen to somebody else's story,” Haj said, “is a rare and beautiful and necessary thing.”

To hear the full conversation with Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joseph Haj, click play on the audio player above.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.