Joe Dowling and Joseph Haj
He was on nobody’s short list of likely candidates to succeed Joe Dowling, the Guthrie Theater’s long-time artistic director retiring in June. But now that Joseph Haj—from the PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina—has been chosen as Dowling’s successor, he is being heralded by almost everyone as the perfect candidate for the job. Thus begins Haj’s transformation from humble artist you’ve never heard of to Super Director, the bold, fearless titan who will lead the Guthrie’s ongoing battle for cultural relevance, artistic distinction, and box office supremacy.
It’s a familiar story. When Dowling was named to succeed Garland Wright, he also was a relative unknown. Immediately, he came to be seen as a great choice for the job, because he was everything Wright was not. Wright was a brilliant artist who staged some of the most memorable plays in the Guthrie’s history. But Wright hated dealing with the public, didn’t think Twin Cities theatergoers were particularly sophisticated, and was infamous for not liking the plays of St. Paul’s favorite adopted son, August Wilson.
Dowling, on the other hand, was a gregarious Irishman who liked the public part of the job, and seemed to be the rarest of breeds: an artist without an over-sized ego. Wright alienated the Guthrie from its public in many ways; Dowling was hired to heal the rift, bring the community together, and chart a friendlier course. All of which he did.
Now, 20 years later, the Guthrie selection committee chose someone who will take the baton from Dowling and lead—but to where? That’s the thing, no one really knows. But by choosing Haj, the Guthrie has made its intentions for the future more clear.
Haj’s connection to the theater’s Wright era says plenty. During Wright’s reign, the Guthrie’s overall output was uneven, but every year or two, Wright staged a play so epic that it became the talk of the town. Shakespeare’s History Plays, The Screens, Naga Mandala, K: Impressions of the Trial—these weren’t just plays, they were events, works of extraordinary artistry in which most everyone agreed something special was happening. That Haj himself acted in both The Screens (directed by JoAnne Akalaitis) and Robert Woodruff’s groundbreaking The Skin of Our Teeth means he was in the thick of it when “it” was happening. People who saw these plays, including me, still talk about them 25 years later.
As successful as Dowling’s regime has been—new theater, bigger budget, more community involvement, support for small theaters, a broader range of work—the work itself has rarely taken that ineffable artistic leap to the sublime.
In the past two decades, many of the Guthrie’s most memorable performances (The Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Seagull, Kneehigh Theater’s Brief Encounter, The Scottsboro Boys) were imports. The Tony Kushner celebration in 2009 was certainly ambitious, and included a transcendent production of Caroline, or Change—but the subsequent Christopher Hampton directed/produced celebration was a relative flop. It’s also telling that the Guthrie’s best work rarely takes place on its largest stage.
“Genius” was the word most often associated with Wright, and every once in a while he produced it. Meanwhile “populist” was the word most often associated with Dowling. The words most often seen near Haj’s name are “passion” and “dedication.” Haj appears to combine Wright’s artistic ambitions (like Wright, Haj staged Shakespeare’s massive King Henry VI and King Henry V together) with Dowling’s affinity for “community” and a strong belief in the enduring power and relevance of live theater. At PlayMakers, he also pulled a chronically debt-ridden organization into the black by daring to produce more plays, not cut costs.
Put it all together and you have a man who seems capable of reconnecting the newer, safer Guthrie with its former, more brazen self. The proof, as always, will be in the productions. But until the curtain drops on his first full production in September, Haj deserves the benefit of the doubt. Helming the Guthrie is one of the most powerful and difficult jobs in American theater. Here’s hoping Haj learns how to use that power to do good work, some of which occasionally rises to greatness.