The year: 1989. The place: the Guthrie Theater’s lobby bar. Director Joanne Akalaitis is having a post-rehearsal drink with one of the actors in her upcoming production of Jean Genet’s The Screens, a parable of death and human horror set during the Algerian war for independence. The actor’s parents were born in Palestine, and he wonders if there might be a way to use theater to bring some measure of hope to the people there, who were experiencing similar horrors.
The year: 1991. The place: the Gaza Strip. Akalaitis and that actor, Joseph Haj, have realized his barside ambition. They’re teaching workshops to theater artists at the Gaza City Y.M.C.A. For Haj, who is only a few years out of grad school, the trip serves as a confirmation of his belief that theater can feed the human soul in ways that other art forms cannot, even—and perhaps especially—in communities where souls are being crushed on a daily basis.
Now, 26 years later, Haj is running the theater where he got his start, having replaced Joe Dowling as the Guthrie’s artistic director last July. Haj still talks about creating theater that “serves the needs of the community,” and embraces “diversity”—virtuous language that can sound empty, like the kind of thing someone in his position is supposed to say to reassure people that their concerns are being taken seriously. But Haj means it. This is a man, after all, who once directed a production of Henry V in a maximum-security prison, using inmates from rival gangs as actors.
The Twin Cities isn’t exactly Gaza, and “diversity” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when one thinks of the Guthrie’s audience, but the challenges facing Haj are no less daunting. He is following in the footsteps of Dowling, the longest-tenured artistic director in Guthrie history, and the theater itself has grown into a three-stage mega-complex with a budget 10 times larger than North Carolina’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, where Haj spent the past 10 years as artistic director.
Even to people supposedly in the know, Haj’s appointment came as a surprise. His name wasn’t even part of the discussion in the weeks leading up to the announcement. But part of the reason Haj was hired was because of his long-standing connection to the Guthrie, which was established in the era prior to Dowling’s arrival, during Garland Wright’s mercurial tenure as artistic director. If one is looking for indications about what Haj’s legacy might one day look like, and what sort of theater he aspires to create, Haj’s early days may offer some insight.
Haj is known as an “actor’s director,” because he started out as an actor (not all directors do) and knows that side of the craft well. But when Haj arrived at the Guthrie at the age of 26, he was only a year out of grad school. Fortune landed him in three seminal Guthrie productions: The Screens, by Jean Genet (directed by Akalaitis), Shakespeare’s King Richard II, directed by Wright as part of a history-play trilogy, and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, directed by Robert Woodruff.
In local theater lore, this particular run of plays constitutes an almost mythical period in the Guthrie’s history, when Wright’s artistic genius and iconoclasm were at their peak. For a while there, the Guthrie wasn’t just producing plays, it seemed, it was creating must-see theater events of national importance—theater so brilliant, spectacular, and audacious that it was all but impossible to ignore.
“Those three plays belong on a short list of plays that were utterly defining for me,” says Haj, whose new office is decorated with a poster from that 1990 production of The Skin of Our Teeth. “A lot of who I am as a theater artist today, and as a leader, is because of my experiences here at that time.”
Haj’s first production at the Guthrie was The Screens, an epic theater event that Newsweek drama critic Jack Kroll declared “the most important piece of theater this country has produced in the past 20 years.” Featuring 36 actors, a commissioned score by Philip Glass, and a live orchestra, The Screens only ran for two-and-a-half weeks, off-subscription, and lost money—but people still talk about it as one of the Guthrie’s greatest achievements. For Haj, it was also a seminal moment in his artistic life.
“Doing The Screens at the Guthrie was where I learned that theater could carry meaning beyond the story—that theater could have politics and aesthetics beyond the simple storytelling of the text,” Haj explains. It’s also where he learned that the visual aspect of a play can amplify its meaning and impact far beyond the words and movement of the actors—a lesson he says has profoundly influenced his approach as a director ever since.
“I only did four plays under Garland Wright, that’s all—but during my time at PlayMakers, hardly a day went by when I didn’t think of Garland. The impact he had on me was wildly disproportionate to the time I spent with him.”
“Garland believed in creating adventuresome theater, and that Twin Cities audiences would not turn away from it,” says Akalaitis. “Joe learned from Garland’s example. Now, Joe is the idealist. He believes in artistic adventure and the transformative power of theater, and in the willingness of audiences to embrace that adventure.”
Precisely how Wright’s influence on Haj will manifest itself on the Guthrie’s stages in the coming years remains to be seen. Twin Citians won’t see a full slate of Haj-selected plays until the fall of 2016. Local theatergoers will however get their first glimpse of a Haj-directed play this month, when his acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s Pericles takes over the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust stage.
It’s not uncommon for new artistic directors to open with their strengths, and Haj is no exception. Indeed, Pericles comes to the Guthrie about as preapproved as a play could possibly be.
Haj developed his version of it for last year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it was one of the most popular plays of the season. Critics called it a “magical,” “must-see” production, and demand for tickets was so strong that, near the end of the show’s run, people were standing outside the OSF’s Thomas Theatre holding cardboard signs that read, “I need a ticket to Pericles.” The play then went on to Washington, D.C.’s Folger Theatre, and will be performed here with the same cast.
If you’re a director who wants to make his mark at the Guthrie, Shakespeare is a good place to start. One of the first plays Garland Wright directed at the Guthrie was Richard III, and Dowling himself became known for his multiple renditions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pericles, however, though Shakespeare, is also unconventional enough to be considered a brave choice.
One of the Bard’s most popular plays during his lifetime, Pericles’ critical fortunes have fallen so far that in some circles Pericles is considered Shakespeare’s “worst” play, and in others it isn’t even considered a Shakespeare play at all. The primary controversy has to do with the first nine scenes, which some scholars have argued are so inferior to the rest of the play that they couldn’t have been written by Shakespeare.
Haj couldn’t disagree more.
“I’m one of the two or three people alive who believe that Shakespeare wrote all of Pericles,” Haj laughs. “I think it’s a spectacularly mature play. I also think that the two-dimensionality of those early acts—the reason people call it a ‘problem’ play and question its authorship—are quite deliberate. When Pericles is young and coltish and all elbows, the play reflects that—and the play thickens and matures and acquires dimension as Pericles the character deepens and matures. That’s one of the reasons I think the play has only one author: Shakespeare.”
Haj first became acquainted with Pericles as an actor in a 1991 production of it at the Public Theater in New York. He then directed a student production at the University of Tennessee, and directed it at PlayMakers in 2008. Last year’s production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was his third and arguably most successful attempt.
The play has a familiar plot: Man loses everything—including his wife and daughter—spends a lot of time traveling around, encountering weird people and more than his share of bad luck, then eventually gets reunited with his family, because . . .
Well, that’s the thing about Pericles. The play is technically a “romance,” so it ends happily, but there is no overarching moral to the story. Pericles doesn’t get reunited with his family because he is a virtuous man, or because he has pleased God. The only thing Pericles does to bring about his sudden good fortune is fail to die. And that, says Haj, is why he likes the play so much.
“Pericles doesn’t do anything particularly wrong to lose everything, and he doesn’t do anything particularly right to get it back. That’s why, for me, Pericles is such a mature play—because it’s actually the way life happens. If you live a life of any length, there is unspeakable tragedy coming to all of us; and there is almost unbearable beauty coming to all of us. That’s a life lived. So Pericles, for me, is a play about a life lived—it’s a metaphor, or a mandala, made with all of this care, then a pattern emerges, and then it’s washed away. It’s a beautiful, profound, spiritual play. With pirates.”
One of the play’s central metaphors is the sea—as a force that gives life (via food and transportation), and takes it away (via brutal, ship-sinking storms). According to Jeff Meanza, who worked with Haj at PlayMakers and whom Haj hired here as associate artistic director, one of the great things about his boss’s artistic sensibility is that “he’s not afraid of grand theatrical gestures.” In Pericles, this penchant for eye-popping spectacle is especially vivid during the storm scenes, when the entire stage is covered by billowing blue silk, and massive video projections and strobe lights immerse the audience in the roiling sea, along with Pericles, who is struggling for his life. The effect is so all-encompassing that some theatergoers in Oregon reported feeling queasy. On the Guthrie thrust, the effect will be even bigger and better.
Haj also taps into the elements that made Pericles such a popular play in its time, namely the humor (the fishermen and pirates provide loads of laughs), and the brothel scenes, in which Pericles’s estranged daughter finds several improbable ways to preserve her chastity. He added quite a few songs, too—mostly jaunty sea shanties and other folksy toe-tappers.
Critics watching the Oregon production were fulsome in their praise of Haj’s ability to create a fluid, logical, entertaining progression of events out of a play that many think is disjointed and illogical. But that, says Haj, is because reading the play is not the same as seeing it performed onstage.
“To me, one of the great virtues of Pericles is that it doesn’t follow the rules,” says Haj. “We want stories where there are good guys and bad guys, and we’ve been so coded to think that way that it’s hard to think about a play like Pericles. That’s why, on the page, Pericles bewilders readers and scholars—but in production, the thing just works. It does.”
Jennie Greenberry in Pericles, directed by Joseph Haj.; Wayne T. Carr (Pericles).
Photographs by Jenny Graham
At times, Haj’s own story can sound almost as serendipitous as Pericles’s. He never lost his wife, Deirdre, a documentary filmmaker, or their daughter, Samantha, but his journey to Minnesota was anything but smooth. Born to Palestinian parents, he grew up in Miami among a community of Cuban immigrants, and was, he says, a lousy student. An acting class in high school woke him up to the possibilities of theater, and his passion for it grew from there. After attending Florida International University, he got a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. From there, his career has been guided by a dogged work ethic, an unwavering belief in the cultural value of theater, and plenty of old-fashioned luck.
“I never realistically thought I’d be sitting here,” Haj says, surveying his office at the Guthrie, which overlooks the Mississippi River. “No one thinks, ‘Oh, I’m going to end up running the Guthrie,’ because the job only comes up once every 20 years, and only one person can have it.”
But now that he has the job, the question is: What is he going to do with it?
Even Haj doesn’t know the answer yet. At the University of North Carolina’s PlayMakers Repertory Company, though, Haj had a reputation as something of a miracle worker. There, he took a struggling theater and, over the course of a year, doubled its play output, raised its artistic profile, burnished its reputation for quality work, and transformed PlayMakers into something it had never been before: profitable. He is also highly regarded on the national theater scene as a thoughtful and articulate advocate for the arts.
Haj admires Dowling’s accomplishments and regards the facilities and resources now at his disposal with an appropriate amount of awe. But even the Guthrie’s mighty budget has dropped from $29 million to $26 million in the past few years, and attendance has fallen off from 400,000 to 375,000. Filling seats is always Job No. 1 at the Guthrie, but Haj firmly believes that pandering to the lowest common denominator isn’t the way to do it; the key, he says, is “making beautiful work that is strongly and powerfully connected to the community that we’re charged to serve.”
Dowling said similar things, of course, and pursued that goal in his own way. But Haj’s spiritual and artistic connection to the Guthrie was clearly forged during the heyday of the Wright era (he’d never seen a Dowling play until last year), and part of him wants to recapture the magic in that particular bottle.
“There was a time in Wright’s tenure when everyone who worked in theater in this country wanted to work at the Guthrie. It’s where you wanted to be,” says Haj. “In 10 years, if we’re doing our job right, I’d like to think that all the best theater artists in the world will want to be working here. I’m not saying I’m going to program five hours of Genet next season, or that the period is even replicable. But it is worth asking: What is our moment’s version of that kind of theater experience?”
Haj’s production of Pericles should be a promising start. “Pericles isn’t produced very often, so it’s a little unappealing at first,” says Dawn Monique Williams, Haj’s associate director in Oregon. “People think they won’t like it, or won’t understand it. But Joseph’s production is so moving and clear and beautiful that people’s expectations are blown away.”
Nevertheless, Haj isn’t the kind of director who stamps plays with his own personal mark, just for the sake of it. “I don’t think I have any kind of signature aesthetic, where you go, oh, that’s a Joe Haj play,” Haj admits. “For me, the shape, form, style, approach completely follow what the needs of a given script are.”
Right now, the script calls for a sign to “the community” that the right choice has been made and that the good ship Guthrie is being steered by a capable captain. Haj has played the role before, and intends to keep playing it here, now, and for many years to come.
Jan. 16–Feb. 21, Guthrie Theater, guthrietheater.org
Haj’s Next Challenge: South Pacific
Joseph Haj’s next directing adventure at the Guthrie, due this summer, is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, another romance framed by the sea. As safe a crowd pleaser as it may seem on the surface, the choice to direct it says something important about Haj’s appetite for risk. South Pacific will be the first production Haj has developed from the ground up at his new home. It’s also a musical, which is not Haj’s favorite genre (he prefers dramas and comedies). But he is approaching it, he says, almost like a new play. “Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote South Pacific in 1948—before the Civil Rights Movement—and here they take this story about America fighting in this war to make the world safer for social justice, fairness, and democracy, even while there are gross inequities going on in our own country. Those ideas are transparently being explored in South Pacific. Those guys, for their day, were so progressive, even transgressive. The challenge is to figure out a way in 2016 to make a production that has the kind of impact it had in 1948—because it had a profound impact. I don’t want it to be a big piece of cotton candy.”