MINNEAPOLIS — Joseph Haj has a tough act to follow.
Haj, 52, took over artistic leadership last summer at the renowned Guthrie Theater following a two-decade tenure by the popular Joe Dowling.
Moving up from the smaller PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina, Haj spent part of his first three months on the job traveling the state to acquaint himself with theater-loving Minnesotans. Now he's dipping into familiar material for his Guthrie directing debut: Shakespeare's romance "Pericles," which opened Jan. 16 and closes Sunday.
Meanwhile, Haj said he's relishing the opportunity to program the three stages of the Guthrie's sprawling complex.
"It's thrilling," said Haj, appearing relaxed in a suit with an open-collar shirt during a recent interview in his office where he works standing up at his computer. "I mean, you'd be crazy not to be thrilled by the opportunity to create meaningful work in each of those three rooms across the season and continue to wrestle with a business model that's sturdy enough to support all of that work. I'm enjoying it enormously."
The Guthrie, a regional Tony Award winner, is about 10 times the size of PlayMakers, a professional theater housed at the university in Chapel Hill, where Haj oversaw a schedule of about 10 productions per season.
But, Haj cautions, "You come to a place where the budget is 10 times larger, it doesn't make you 10 times smarter."
Haj said PlayMakers was in financial trouble when he arrived as producing artistic director in 2006. He said he was able to produce a surplus his first year there and every year afterward. By comparison, Haj is inheriting a solid financial base at the nonprofit Guthrie, which has close to 400 people on the payroll, a budget of $29 million last fiscal year and attendance of more than 380,000.
"This is a place of extraordinary care and stability financially," Haj said. He said that allowed him to "immediately get my eyes to a further horizon, and chase aesthetic, artistic questions."
On the 100th day of his new job, Haj said he assembled everyone on the staff and outlined the Guthrie's four core values — artistic excellence, community, a commitment to diversity and fiscal responsibility.
"Our work needs to reflect the broadness of this nation," said Haj, an Arab-American who was born to Palestinian immigrant parents in Paterson, N.J., and grew up in Miami.
While the Guthrie concentrates on works from the Western European and American canon, he said the theater must exhibit a "real commitment to a plurality of voices" in his board of directors, staff and "in all areas of our work." (Haj is currently programming the next Guthrie season but would not give any clues about what he is planning.)
Haj made numerous community appearances while at PlayMakers and has demonstrated a commitment to diversity, said Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, which represents nearly 700 member theaters and organizations nationwide.
"He's always been a person who walks the walk," Eyring said, adding that Haj is "somebody who's been a very, very articulate, vocal advocate for building more equity in the artistic field."
Another plus is that Haj was an actor who appeared on the old Guthrie stage 25 years ago, Eyring said. He made his Guthrie acting debut in a 5½-hour production of Jean Genet's "The Screens" in the 1989-90 season.
"He has a sense of what it means to be an artist working at the Guthrie," Eyring said. "He has an understanding of the culture of the organization."
Dowling programmed the current Guthrie season before stepping down June 30 but allowed Haj to make any changes. Haj suggested inserting into the January slot "Pericles," one of Shakespeare's least-produced plays but one that Haj says audiences respond to "hugely."
"People love the play," said Haj, who calls "Pericles" a "refugee play." The title character is forced to flee his home and spends the next 16 years in exile, trying to find his way home.
"It's a very beautiful play for right now," said Haj, who helmed PlayMakers' production of "Pericles" in 2008 and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year.
"He has really good ideas about how to reveal the heart of this play," said Bill Rauch, artistic director of the festival. "It's very real when absolutely everyone in the audience is crying."
Both Rauch and actor Wayne T. Carr, who makes his Guthrie debut playing Pericles after performing the role in its two previous productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., praise Haj for his kindness and sensitivity that inspire loyalty in his actors.
"He's like the best conductor I've ever seen," Carr said. "He takes all of these people and puts them in a room and allows them to play their instrument to the best of their ability."
Haj said he plans to continue the Guthrie's financial stability, which saw only one deficit during Dowling's 20-year tenure. But he also promises to be daring in his choices.
"We don't want to sell more tickets than anybody else in America. Who cares? You know, McDonald's sells more food than anybody else in America. That doesn't mean it's the best food."