Joe Haj on the Guthrie’s 2016-17 season: ‘It really is broad’

Photo by Lauren Mueller
Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joe Haj directing a production.

Seven plays brand new to the Guthrie. Two adaptations of novels that couldn’t be more different. Many women and people of color: authors, adapters, directors and playwrights. Three, maybe four plays that focus on race and the consequences of prejudice, segregation and privilege. And only two plays we’ve seen at the Guthrie before – coincidentally, they were in the same season back then, too.  

Artistic Director Joseph Haj announced his first fully curated mainstage season today (Friday, March 4), and it’s a study in plurality. “When I say plurality, I don’t just mean culture or gender, but also aesthetics,” Haj explained in a phone interview. “It’s a season that takes us to places hither and yon. It really is broad.”

The 2016-17 season (nine plays plus “A Christmas Carol”) opens Sept. 10 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage with “Sense and Sensibility,” a classic romantic comedy adapted by Kate Hamill from the book by Jane Austen, directed by the Jungle’s new AD, Sarah Rasmussen, making her Guthrie directorial debut. On the McGuire Proscenium Stage starting Oct. 1: Mike Wiley’s Civil Rights drama with music, “The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders,” about civil rights workers arrested and imprisoned in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary. The play had its world premiere in 2011 at PlayMakers Repertory in North Carolina, Haj’s former theater. Harlem-based Patricia McGregor will direct it here.

Starting Nov. 19 on the proscenium stage, James Goldman’s historical dramatic comedy “Lion in Winter” will face off against the 42nd annual production of “A Christmas Carol” on the thrust. Haj wanted this year’s “alternative holiday delight” – in-house Guthriespeak for whatever play isn’t “A Christmas Carol” – to be truly alternative. “‘Lion in Winter’ also happens over the Christmas season, albeit Christmas of 1183,” he said. “But it has way more in common with ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ than it does with any kind of historical drama. It’s kind of like Christmas with the Strindbergs. I’m psyched for it.”

After the holidays, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s American comedy “The Royal Family,” loosely based on the Barrymores, will take over the proscenium stage on Jan. 28, 2017. Beginning Feb. 11, we’ll see our first “King Lear” at the Guthrie in more than a decade, when Haj will direct Shakespeare’s great tragedy. (“Royal Family” and “Lear” were both in the 1995-96 season under Garland Wright.)

Adapted by Lydia R. Diamond, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, “Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye” opens April 15 on the thrust stage. Both Diamond and Blain-Cruz will make their Guthrie debuts with Morrison’s story of innocence lost to the destructive power of a racist society.

Big news for Theatre de la Jeune Lune fans: May 13 brings the world premiere of “Refugia” (ref-you-GEE-ah), an original work by The Moving Company directed by Dominique Serrand that uses music, movement, language and video to explore topics both ancient and in the moment: exile, borders, and the displacement of peoples.

“I’ve known Dominique for years,” Haj said. “I’m a huge fan, a huge admirer. I think he’s one of our country’s great theater artists. He’s been in this community for 30 years, and I thought it was time to invite him back to the Guthrie.” The new play will be workshopped at the Guthrie over several weeks this fall.

“The closing of the Jeune Lune sent shockwaves through the national community,” Haj said. “It’s a theater we looked to for its artmaking and its aesthetics. That was a meaningful loss not just to the Twin Cities but to capital-T theater. Finding ways to support those great artists in their work is something I’m very proud of.” As the Guthrie’s AD, Haj will have a hands-on producing role.

The Guthrie Theater's production of A Christmas Carol.
Photo by Dan Norman
The Guthrie Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol.”

Starting June 17, Haj will direct the year’s big musical, Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park with George,” the first time a Sondheim will appear on a Guthrie mainstage. The season will end with Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens” on the proscenium stage, a new comedy that examines race, taste, class and privilege and introduces playwright Zacarias to Guthrie audiences.

Upon arriving on the Twin Cities in July of last year, Haj quickly went to work getting to know his new community – not only Guthrie-goers in the Twin Cities metro area but also supporters in greater Minnesota. He reflected on how that experience shaped what we’ll see in 2016-17.

“It was utterly informative,” he said. “It underlined what my instincts were about what the Guthrie is supposed to be. … The Guthrie has to be a lot of things to a lot of people. Everybody doesn’t want the same thing from us. There are people who attend regularly because of our work with Shakespeare. Some love the musicals and the comedy. Some like to participate in our work with more contemporary plays. There are communities we want to serve better that want more representation on the stage and in the storytelling itself. When we took all that to the table, we set about ensuring that we had a plurality of voices, storytelling, and stories themselves. That’s a result of those conversations.”

With so many new plays, does the season feel a bit risky? “It doesn’t to me, because I’m so excited about all of them. I think that everybody should come to see everything we’re doing.” 

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