Oh, you're so creative
Hello, Minnesota! This week's edition of News and Notes is basically about one topic, but before you get two paragraphs in and decide to "tl;dr" it, I do want to call your attention to one other big thing that dropped this week. Creative Minnesota just released its first big report on the health and impacts of the nonprofit arts and culture sector, creatively titled "The Health and Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Sector". There are a lot of numbers in it, and I would like to take more time to tease out any meaning they might have, so I will save a deeper dive into it until next week. Long story short, the report says nonprofit arts and culture activities in Minnesota pumped $1.2 billion into the state's economy last year. Instead of waiting to see what I say about it, though, you can go dive in yourself, either by downloading the full report, or by taking the lazy man's route and downloading the graphic-heavy cheat sheet.
Also, even though it has nothing to do with Minnesota, I wanted to share with you the most confounding theater story I've heard so far this year.
Out with the old Joe…
Last week on News and Notes, I had to have my writing turned in for publication just before we finally found out who was succeeding Joe Dowling at the Guthrie. The big G made the announcement literally hours after News and Notes hit the internet.
Now, a week later, I get the pleasure of being late to the party. I know that a week in internet time is like the turning of a new epoch, but I am forced by the capriciousness of a set publishing schedule to continue as if I have arrived on time. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce the next Artistic Director of the big blue battleship: Joseph Haj. So, now the precedent is set: henceforth, the position of Artistic Director will be known simply as The Joe.
The Joe is dead! Long live The Joe!
Sure, I was of the opinion that the new AD should be a woman, but I'm not going to throw a temper tantrum because I didn't get exactly what I wanted, like some spoiled kid lobbing frosting and birthday candles across the room because his parents got him a strawberry cake instead of chocolate. I'm an adult. I will sample the cake and see how it tastes before I start chucking it at the wall.
I know, you were probably expecting me to write some cynical polemic about how this is the worst decision the Guthrie could have made, and the regional theater system is doomed, and blah, blah, blah… But I am going to blow your mind, readers, by declaring my cautious optimism. I understand that "I am somewhat hopeful that this has a decent chance of working out OK for everyone!" doesn't sound quite so compelling when shouted from a mountaintop, and it definitely wouldn't fit well on a celebratory banner, but let's keep that enthusiasm tamped down for right now, lest we find ourselves embarrassed by said enthusiasm later down the line. I first heard of Haj about a year ago, when I read a copy of an address he gave at the Under the Radar 2014 Symposium. It started off as the standard "Theater's not dead! It's been here for thousands of years!" stuff that you often hear at such symposiums, but what caught my attention was when he switched tacks, and said this:
"That said…each of our individual theatres or presenting organizations are extraordinarily fragile and vulnerable entities, and dependent on the continued support of the communities which they serve. And I just wonder if that fragility, while anathema to our corporate culture, is exactly right for us. Be relevant, all the time, or go away. Every year, every day, to question whether we are relevant enough. Whether we are important enough for our community to engage with us and care for us. That fragility, somehow, seems right to me. And though it leaves us feeling anxious and destabilized, we have to stop acting like that fragility is somehow evidence of the failure of the art form or of the sector."
That's pretty strong stuff for something that's not printed in HowlRound. The argument that all theaters (even the big ones) should strive to be relevant to their communities rather to be too big to fail is a pretty radical one in the regional theater world. I immediately liked this cut of this Joe's jib, and I've been a sort of faraway admirer ever since.
However, I would have never put Haj down as someone the Guthrie would even consider on their shortlist of new Artistic Directors. Hey, sometimes, even an old, entrenched organization can surprise you. It's like watching your curmudgeonly old grandpa suddenly throw his cane to the side and really get down on the dance floor for a few moments.
The Star Tribune has already given us a good rundown of Haj's biography. We know that he will come to Minnesota from running PlayMakers in North Carolina, that he's the son of Palestinian immigrants, that he's won a bunch of awards, and that Theatre Communications Group named him as one of the 25 people who will shape the future of American theatre.
But, none of that is why I think this a good choice for the Guthrie. There are 24 other people on that list they could have gone with (and I'm sure a guy who currently runs an organization with 1/10 the budget of the Guthrie was probably not their first choice). What I like is what the choice of Haj says about the Guthrie board's thinking: they know they need to change, and they know they can't do it overnight. The previous Joe (Mr. Dowling, if you recall) came from the big, grand tradition, where big, grand theaters did big, grand productions of big, grand plays. It's a world built on classicism, tradition, familiarity and nobility, and it's a world that is utterly incompatible with the rise of the internet generation.
This is not to say that the future of theater should be modeled on the reductive, hyper-speed, near-zero attention span of the internet (and, really, there's only so many plays you can make about cats), but there is a sense of immediacy, intimacy, and cooperation with the greater community that you can find online (outside of YouTube comment threads) that is kind of missing in modern large-scale theater. I suspect that's what Haj will try to bring to the Guthrie.
Take, for example, his comments in a 2012 interview:
"So much of my work has been to make the walls porous, to make horizontal what had been a vertical relationship, and to become a meaningful part of the cultural life in the region. Too often, our theaters behave as though we are the master, the taste-makers. I really sought to re-calibrate that thinking, positioning us as the servant in our relationship to community, not the master."
Or, look at Haj making the case for breaking the traditional "lone genius" view of the director:
"…it is a thrill to be able to work in the same room and share ideas, offer alternative ideas, propose alternative approaches, reflect to one another in real time what is and is not working."
Or, if you want to get really radical, look at what he wrote for TCG when they selected him as one of those 25 future influencers (which he was savvy enough to place in list format; the man knows how the internet works):
24. Future leaders will need to do two things: First, learn everything from those who have come before...and second:
25. Take the old way outside and shoot it.
I know he's not coming to town to burn down the fortress that Joe Dowling built. There will be no revolution, but there will be evolution. There won't be any hard, radical shifts coming to the Guthrie any time soon; but based on his past track record, I suspect that Haj will begin the long, laborious process of shifting the old blue lady's rudder into a new direction, and I'm hopeful as to where it will sail next.
Of course, you can leave as many passionate rebuttals as you wish in the comment section below. This is the internet, after all. Extra points if you misspell common words.