Guthrie Theater announces game-changing initiative

Joseph Haj is coming to the Guthrie Theater

Joseph Haj is coming to the Guthrie Theater

When the Guthrie Theater announced its 2016-17 mainstage season, artistic director Joseph Haj promised forthcoming news about a “major initiative” for the Dowling Studio. That initiative has now been announced, and it’s a game-changer for the Guthrie’s ninth-floor black-box space.

Today, the Guthrie announced the Level Nine Initiative, an effort, backed by a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, that will refocus programming on the Guthrie’s ninth floor and make it more accessible. Notably, the price of all Dowling Studio tickets will drop to $9 each.

“There’s no sense in falling off the lowest rung of the ladder,” said Haj, citing the boldness of the initiative in a conversation with reporters on Wednesday morning. “Let’s be ambitious, let’s be brave.”

Programming in the Dowling Studio will be expanded, with a persistent focus on inclusivity and community engagement. The Guthrie will hire a director of community engagement to “conceive, develop, implement, and oversee community-based programming to meaningfully connect the Guthrie with communities currently underserved by its work,” states the press release.

As part of the new initiative, each year for at least the next three years — the period covered by the Mellon grant — the Guthrie will program three or four shows, either produced by itself or by other companies, with associated pre- or post-show events. A new play will also be commissioned each season.

Further, the Guthrie is promising each year to host a company creating devised theater, to seek local and regional productions to stage in the space (Lauren Ignaut will continue in this capacity as director of studio theater programming), and even to host “happenings” (the Guthrie’s word) that “are responsive to local and national current events.”

Joseph Haj is coming to the Guthrie Theater

Joseph Haj is coming to the Guthrie Theater

Haj acknowledged the oft-stated fact that the Guthrie, like any large organization, is a “big ship” that takes a long time to change course. Planning for these “happenings,” he said, is a way to build organizational capacity to more quickly respond to developing events. “Why can’t we have three Zodiacs on board so that we can zip out and come back to our aircraft carrier?” asked Haj, extending the nautical metaphor.

When something like a “Ferguson moment” arises, said Haj by way of example, the Guthrie could host a spoken-word event or otherwise participate in an ongoing conversation. With the Level Nine Initiative, “we can have some resources on the shelf to be responsive,” Haj said.

To boot, the Guthrie plans renovations to the yellow-tinted lobby space so as to better accommodate all these diverse activities. Since the wall between the lobby and the performance space is capable of fully retracting, there’s already a wide range of potential uses for the Guthrie’s ninth-floor space.

“I’m thrilled by how that space is convertible,” said Haj. “It can open into a town-hall space, a public space where we can have dialogue about pressing issues.” Those shared community spaces for dialogue, Haj suggested, can be hard to come by. “For the faithful, there's church,” he mused. “For the rest of us, there’s theater. Finding a way for us to be in those conversations is very exciting for me.”

In association with the announcement, some of next year’s planned activities were revealed. Three plays to be produced in the space are Jeanne Sakata’s Hold These Truths (about Gordon Hirabayashi, a survivor of the WWII Japanese Internment Camps), Frank Boyd’s The Holler Sessions (a live radio show about jazz), and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

Playwright KJ Sanchez will create a new documentary play about refugees and immigrants in the Twin Cities, and the Moving Company will be in residence on the ninth floor as they develop Refugia, a previously-announced show that will premiere next spring on the McGuire Proscenium Stage.

It’s a sweeping initiative that indicates a commitment to community engagement beyond what many would have dared to hope from the Guthrie — the target of increasing criticism, in the final years of former artistic director Joe Dowling, on the basis that its programming was falling far out of step with the concerns of its local and national communities.

“Those we serve,” said Haj, “we serve extremely well, but we are not serving enough people. There are entire populations that are left out.”

Though prices for Dowling Studio shows have varied, and typically been substantially less than prices for mainstage shows, $9 still represents a steep discount for the average production in that space. The Guthrie’s strategy of dramatically cutting ticket prices across the board is similar to — though not as dramatic as — Mixed Blood Theatre’s Radical Hospitality program, a successful effort to welcome broader audiences by offering no-cost tickets for every performance.

“We are very conscious,” emphasized Haj, “that price is not the only barrier to entry. For some, it’s second, third, fourth on the list of barriers. There’s [the question of] relevance, and there’s the psychological barrier of just coming into our building. Price is a barrier to some — and a meaningful barrier. We’re going to see a different demographic by virtue of [the nine-dollar] price point.”

The Dowling Studio space, which seats about 200 in a typical configuration, was always envisioned as a space that would extend the Guthrie’s community engagement. In the decade since the organization’s current riverfront home opened, the Dowling Studio has hosted a wide range of shows produced by the Guthrie and, more often, by local and national companies presenting smaller-scale productions.

It’s already been configured in almost every imaginable way — from a conventional tiered-seating arrangement to an in-the-round dance venue to a faux museum (for 2014’s Relics). What’s imaginable for the space, it seems, is about to expand even farther.

Noting that the Ninth Floor Initiative isn’t just about engaging new audiences for the Guthrie, Haj hopes the initiative will help both the organization and its current audiences to push their boundaries.

“We know how to make Harvey at the Guthrie,” said Haj. “We know that we have an audience for that production. But our tastes grow, we develop tastes, and even for those who come all the time, being able to see another kind of work at the Guthrie — aesthetically, formally, thematically — it expands us.”