MINNEAPOLIS: Joseph Haj, currently the producing artistic director of Playmakers Repertory Theatre in Chapel, N.C., has been named the new artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, the eighth leader since the theatre’s founding in 1963 by its namesake, Tyrone Guthrie. Haj succeeds Joe Dowling, the theatre’s longest-serving artistic director, who led the company for two decades, overseeing its move from a spot near the Walker Art Center to a brand new, $125-million facility by the Mississippi River a decade ago.
Haj is no stranger to the Guthrie, where he acted onstage in 1989 and 1990. A native of New Jersey, Haj grew up in Miami and earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina. His acting and directing career has taken him to the Public Theater in New York City, the Alley Theater in Houston, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. His 2010 production of Hamlet at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. was nominated for six Helen Hayes Awards, winning for outstanding production. At PlayMakers, where Haj has been producing artistic director since 2006, he dug the theatre out of deficit spending and nearly doubled its budget size, from $1.6 milloin to $2.8 million.
Outside of traditional theatres, Joseph has directed projects in a maximum-security prison in Los Angeles, in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina and in the West Bank and Gaza. An Arab-American, Haj was noted for the diversity of his programming at PlayMakers, and last year received the Zelda Fichandler Award from SDC, the stage directors’ and choreographers’ union, given to leaders “deemed transformative to the regional theatre through innovative, brave work.”
Dowling’s tenure, which included collaborations with artists including Christopher Hampton, Mark Rylance, Tony Kushner, Roger Rees and Lisa Peterson, came under some fire in recent years for its lack of diversity. Dowling will direct three final plays at the theater, including the current A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He previously served as artistic director of Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland.
While it’s too soon to imagine the changes Haj, 51, may bring with him, here’s one clue: He recently contributed a thoughtful editorial to American Theatre advocating that more theatres (and the SDC) allow directors to collaborate on productions.