Wanted: Professional theater in decline seeks idealistic, visionary young artistic director to halt current downward spiral. Résumé must reflect solid work in top-tier regional theaters; projects in war zones and maximum-security prisons at high risk to personal safety a plus. No prior experience required managing a company anywhere near >$1M annual budget, but candidate must somehow double total current number of productions, restore relevancy, raise company morale and national profile, and make it rain, eliminating financial and artistic deficits, establishing surpluses in both. Transparency mandatory.
For the record, that’s not the current advertisement for the top position at PlayMakers Repertory Company, the region’s largest professional theater. It is, however, a candid take on the circumstances and outcome of its last job search, which brought Artistic Director Joseph Haj to Chapel Hill in 2006.
PlayMakers had to start work on a new want-ad last week after the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, one of the nation’s leading regional companies, announced that Haj will become its new artistic director in July. With an annual budget 10 times that of PlayMakers, producing twice as many shows per year in a three-theater complex, the Guthrie represents a step up for Haj.
Indeed, his initial three-year appointment took many in the local and national theater scene by surprise. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Haj was “not … on the handicappers’ shortlist” for the coveted position, noting that he beat out Public Theater producer Oskar Eustis, a Minnesota native widely considered a top candidate for the post.
Still, the trajectory is appropriate for a director who seems determined to fulfill a 2009 American Theatre prediction naming him among 25 theater artists to have a significant impact over the next 25 years. It also befits a producer who referred to his time at PlayMakers, in an Associated Press interview, as “a turnaround job.” Many now agree that assessment has the ring of truth.
“It is obvious that Joe leaves the theater in incomparably better shape than he found it,” says Ray Dooley, a PlayMakers veteran and UNC Department of Dramatic Art professor. Though the Drama League named PlayMakers one of America’s 50 best regional theatres in 2003, all was not well behind the façade. The company posted deficits in 16 of 18 previous seasons, the Star Tribune reported (PlayMakers could not verify this fact for the INDY by press time). It had trimmed its annual output to five shows by 2005. “And there was talk of moving to four,” Dooley says.
Acting department chair and longtime PRC designer McKay Coble concurs. “We were not a successful theater. Our numbers were down and we were in the red. The ladies in the grocery store were making jokes: ‘It’s time to go to PlayMakers and take your medicine.’ It wasn’t a joy for them.”
Associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza compares his time in graduate school at UNC with his return as director of education and outreach under Haj: “The dynamic changed. It became a celebration of the artists in the building … With that sort of small adjustment, he was really able to raise morale. There was a much stronger sense of an artistic community where people wanted to invest their time … It was pretty instantaneous.”
“You know how it is when you’re wanting for money; there’s a kind of desperation in the air,” Coble recalls. “[Haj] took that away right off the bat. He took us to a place of financial security, well-being and mobility.” New equipment and nationally prominent guest artists began to appear.
Other changes, subtle and obvious, took place. PlayMakers’ season doubled, largely through the inception of PRC2, a second-stage series of smaller, more controversial shows. Haj not only initiated the series in Kenan Theater; he starred, alone on stage, in its nervy first production. When the Bulbul Stopped Singing, a Palestinian doctor’s biographical account of the occupation of Ramallah, signaled a willingness to initiate large, provocative conversations on national and international events.
Searching for works to stretch the company, Haj began programming rotating repertory productions of super-sized shows including Nicholas Nickleby Parts 1 and 2, Angels in America and The Making of a King (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V). “Joe did something very smart there,” says Jerome Davis, artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre Company. “The epic is something that people hunger for today in the arts, and he emphasized it.”
During Haj’s tenure, PlayMakers began hiring local actors such as Jaybird O’Berski, Katja Hill and Derrick Ivey, who were long affiliated with local independent theater. “He recognized them as viable talent,” says director and actor Serena Ebhardt. “Your zip code no longer mattered in whether you were invited to audition.” Davis hailed the move as “a big deal in getting people to move here, to stay here and to think about themselves as professional artists.”
“It became about opening the doors of the theater and making the walls more porous,” Meanza says, “having lots of conversations and better execution to show the diverse community in the Triangle.”
Haj’s move to the Guthrie “speaks volumes about the work we’ve been doing together,” Coble reflects. “It has absolutely been noticed. It’s an enormous compliment to him, and to us, too. They saw in him what they want for their own theater.”
“Am I happy they took him?” Coble asks. “Not really. But I’m very happy for him.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Exit staged right”