When Joseph Haj describes the process of curating his inaugural season as artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, he doesn't say "I"; he says "we." He doesn't refer to the theater's "audience" or "community"; he speaks of Minnesota's plural "communities." With pressure high to represent a range of voices on the Guthrie's stages, Haj is taking his new role very seriously.
Predecessor Joe Dowling moved the Guthrie to its three-stage riverfront home and significantly expanded the company's programming, but nonetheless ended his tenure amid accusations that he hadn't done enough to open the world-renowned theater's doors to diverse artists, or to engage audiences beyond the company's comfortable core.
Haj's first complete season (the new artistic director arrived last summer to oversee the current season, into which he and Dowling both had input) looks like an evolution rather than a radical break, but it's an evolution nonetheless.
"We really worked to ensure that we had plural perspectives," says Haj. "As I've been going around the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, there's an extraordinary sense of ownership. The communities feel that this is their theater."
"It's very clear to us that communities do not have one desire from the Guthrie," Haj continues. "What I've learned that's comforting, that's buoying, is that they want their theater to be a lot of things for a lot of people. Our programming ensured that we have that breadth of work."
The seat-filling tent poles are there: a Jane Austen adaptation (Sense and Sensibility), a Sondheim musical (Sunday in the Park with George), and of course that inevitable Dickens show that many Minnesotans can't decide whether they love to hate or hate to love. There's a staple Shakespeare play, King Lear, back at the Guthrie for the first time in just over two decades and directed by Haj himself. There are two 20th-century chestnuts: The Lion in Winter (1966) and The Royal Family (1927), settling in back-to-back on the McGuire Proscenium Stage.
With those out of the way, things get interesting. Mike Wiley's The Parchman Hour, a musical that Haj premiered in 2011 as artistic director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, reimagines a variety show presented by imprisoned Freedom Riders. Next spring, the Wurtele Thrust Stage will host Lydia R. Diamond's adaptation of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Karen Zacarías' play Native Gardens, about a racially charged dispute between neighbors, will explore some of the same domestic territory that the Guthrie visited with its 2013 production of Clybourne Park.
"The season isn't ever just '10 plays that Joe loves,'" says Haj. "I understand it's the artistic director's job to stand over the season and use the word 'I' a lot, but that's not how it works." To determine what should go up and when, Haj describes consulting with his artistic staff, with production staff ("50 to 60 percent of the people who work in this building work in production"), and, of course, with the people who mind the money.
Haj is giving a huge opportunity to the Moving Company, a group led by former principals of the fabled Theatre de la Jeune Lune, by booking them to premiere Refugia next spring on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. Haj, who previously commissioned director Dominique Serrand and other Moving Company members to produce work at PlayMakers, says his admiration for Serrand, "one of our great directors," preceded any inkling that they'd one day be based in the same city.
It's also significant that season opener Sense and Sensibility will be directed by Sarah Rasmussen. The newly appointed artistic director of the Jungle Theater, Rasmussen previously directed the play at Dallas Theater Center. Haj says that he's also long admired the work of Rasmussen, whose tenure at the Jungle began on the very same day that Haj took his desk at the Guthrie. The blockbuster success of Joe Dowling's Pride and Prejudice showed that "there's a real love for Austen" in the Twin Cities, and when Rasmussen brought Haj a "great" new script, he decided "it made a lot of sense that we would do this."
Yet to be announced is the 2016-17 season in the Dowling Studio, the Guthrie's black-box space. Haj says that the Guthrie is developing "a major initiative we're looking to roll out by the end of the month" for Dowling Studio programming. For the moment, he simply praises the room itself — notably its dynamic setup, with a retractable wall dividing the performance space and the lobby. "[The studio] can move from a theater space to a community space with some flexibility," observes Haj, perhaps hinting at an inspiration for the programming that will unfold next year behind those yellow-tinted windows.
Imported work has been part of the Guthrie's mainstage mix in recent years, including this year, when Haj's own Pericles, though a Guthrie co-production, premiered elsewhere and had an out-of-town cast. In this coming season, Haj notes proudly, "I'm really excited that 100 percent of the mainstage work will be Guthrie-produced, not work coming from somewhere else. I'm really thrilled about that."
On the Wurtele Thrust Stage:
Sense and Sensibility
adapted by Kate Hamill
based upon the novel by Jane Austen
directed by Sarah Rasmussen
September 10 – October 29, 2016
A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
adapted by Crispin Whittell
directed by Joe Chvala
November 15 – December 30, 2016
by William Shakespeare
directed by Joseph Haj
February 11 – April 2, 2017
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye
adapted by Lydia R. Diamond
directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
April 15 – May 21, 2017
Sunday in the Park with George
music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by James Lapine
directed by Joseph Haj
June 17 – August 20, 2017
On the McGuire Proscenium Stage:
The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders
by Mike Wiley
directed by Patricia McGregor
October 1 – November 6, 2016
The Lion in Winter
by James Goldman
directed by TBA
November 19 – December 31, 2016
The Royal Family
by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber
directed by TBA
January 28 – March 19, 2017
an original idea developed by the Moving Company
directed by Dominique Serrand
May 13 – June 11, 2017
by Karen Zacarías
directed by TBA
July 15 – August 20, 2017