From Where I Stand

by Joseph Haj

in Artistry & Artistic Innovation

Post image for From Where I Stand

(The following address was given by Joseph Haj on Thursday, January 9th for the Under the Radar 2014 Symposium.)

My father and I fought tooth and nail about my desire to go to graduate school to become an actor. Partly, because my parents were immigrants from Palestine. And there are only three jobs for the children of immigrants from Palestine: Doctor, lawyer or engineer.  But mostly because my father was given to understand, by talking with some folks, that the theatre was dying.

I was reminded of those conversations from so many years ago when I read an article last week about the theatre as a ‘dying art form’ due to the threat of our ‘on-demand’ world.  I also read this recently from an important person of the theatre lamenting the demise of the field:  “…I  question the utility of turning out every year some thousands of young people who are qualified to teach drama, the overwhelming majority of whom are hoping to get on the staff of a college, where they hope to teach succeeding, ever-multiplying thousands to teach drama.” That quote is from Tyrone Guthrie’s A NEW THEATRE, written in 1964. I have never seen anything take so long to die. We can’t even come up with new reasons why the theatre is dying.

Our business has been around for at least 2,000 years. It’s doing beautifully in its typically shaggy way. We are told that we need to innovate and adapt in order to survive. We could teach a clinic on the subject. You know what the business world learned 20 years ago that was innovative? They learned that it doesn’t make sense to hire people and make them do the same exact job for 35 years. They learned that they were far nimbler and smarter if they worked on a project specific basis. Put a small team together for a particular project, each team member bringing skills very specific to the demands of said project, and then disbanding the team once that project was finished. In other words, innovatively discovering a way of working that we have been doing since antiquity. For 2000 years we’ve adapted to change. We do it better than anyone. If I had to bet on who might be here 2,000 years from now, the Theatre or television, radio, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, the GOP, Christianity or Miley Cyrus fans: I’d bet on the theatre.

And we have to be careful that our desire to be innovative and entrepreneurial (two words that I’d be happy to see banished from the lexicon) doesn’t encourage us to compromise the thing that is unique and extraordinary about what we do. A couple of years ago PlayMakers allowed “tweeting” from a section of the audience. It felt silly to me and we stopped. Because in our world where it seems that every single person has a blog –further evidence that the unlived life is not worth examining–and “Selfies” that must be taken and shared with everybody we have ever known, I think one of the single most radical acts a community can perform, is for 500 people, in agreement with one another, to turn off their cell phones and sit in a dark room together to listen to someone ELSE’s story.

I don’t know that we have to innovate in order to save a Theatre which is not dying. I do think we have to be braver. I think we have to invite bigger artists to join us. I think we need to make room for one another. I think we should work with the generosity and joy that comes from working in a discipline which is indeed so durable and indestructible.

The art form is about the closest thing we’ve got to a sure thing. It survived the Plague, civil wars, World Wars, the flu pandemic, Depressions and Recessions. It has survived everything and it will surely survive whatever damage you or I do to it. So capital ‘T’ theatre, I have no worries about.

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.

And I think it is this Chicken Little, “the sky is falling” mentality, that creates such a sense of scarcity; that contributes to this sense that anything that is good for you is somehow something that is being taken away from me. And this contributes to our main failing as a field, which is how we take insufficient care of one another. If we can leave aside all of our orthodoxies, all of our insistence that the kind of work we make is the only kind of work that ought to be made. If we can think of the theatre as a single ecosystem—which it surely is–then to say “companies that make devised work are struggling” is like saying “there’s a leak in your side of the boat”.

For a field that celebrates itself around ideas of inclusion we sure love our little fiefdoms. We operate from such a place of fear and conservatism. For all of us in this room who run an arts organization, we are going to be fired from our job, or we will retire at some point to the great relief of our organization and our community. Those are the only two ways out besides quitting or dying at our desk. People will come to despise us or at least grow tired of us, because that’s what people do.

Our leadership career has a lifespan. And it may turn out to be (maybe should be), shorter than we’d like. And so faced with such career mortality, what are we doing? Peter Sellars once said to me, “The trick is to do as much as you can, as fast as you can, before they figure out what you’re up to and throw you out of the building.” And I think there’s something to that. Make as much art as you can now. Invite as many artists into your building now as you can. Make the work that you have to make before they throw you out. I am truly bored with all of our orthodoxies and competition about who is making more meaningful work. I don’t want to argue about that. But the question I will pose to all of us is: “Are we making the work that we most want and need to make”? Or are we making some other kind of work while waiting for the economy to recover, the audience to come, the Board to step up, the Foundation to embrace us, the NEA to recognize us. What are we waiting for? Better times? These ARE better times. This might be as good as it ever gets. Right now. And a fear-based, scarcity mindset that invites us to hunker down, think small, share nothing with anybody, have no courage until some imagined “better day”, in fact pushes us towards the very demise that we are trying to avoid.

My job is not to ensure sure that PlayMakers uses its resources to build a bomb shelter in its backyard, in preparation against some imagined apocalypse. My job is to make as much art as I can right now, as well as I know how, and connect that work meaningfully to the community which I am charged to serve. Interestingly that has turned out to be a pretty sound business model for us.

Last night we opened Mike Daisey’s THE STORY OF THE GUN at PlayMakers. We commissioned the piece from Mike because we thought that a nation of 300 million people and 300 million guns is a domestic question of some urgency and relevance and that our cultural addiction to guns is worthy of interrogation.

We just closed a rotating rep that I co-directed with Dominque Serrand of THE TEMPEST and METAMORPHOSES. I chose to work on those plays with Dominique, not because we think in the same way and value the same things, but because we don’t; which grew our company and our community meaningfully.

Outside of our producing season at PlayMakers, we’ve got Taylor Mac, Rachel Chavkin and the TEAM in residence this summer continuing work on a future project. We also have the Rude Mechs coming in to work on a new piece. With help from the Mellon Foundation we give room and time and salary, and administrative support, and leverage the intellectual capital of the university, all in support of devising companies. It isn’t the work we make at PlayMakers. We don’t want the premiere. We don’t want subsidiary rights. We just want to be helpful. Because we are in the same boat. And having those artists in our building makes us bigger and makes our entire community stronger.

I’ll leave you with this final thought… I was in the first SITI company production over 20 years ago. Anne Bogart directed Chuck Mee’s ORESTES. We built it in Toga Mura, Japan, using a system called Viewpoints. Talking to other artists at the time about the approach, they thought we were all from Mars. Nobody knew what it was. Now Viewpoints is on actors’ resumes the way that Jazz or Tap used to be. Our edges roll in towards the center, and we make a terrific mistake if we are not nurturing those artists and companies who make work in ways that we don’t immediately understand, or at first blush even know how to fully appreciate.

And so I encourage you to make the work you most need to make. Choose people who are unlike you. Choose people who work in paradigms other than your own. Choose generosity. Choose love. Make room. There is truly such abundance.

Thank you.


Joseph Haj is the Producing Artistic Director of PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC. In addition to his work at PlayMakers he has directed and performed in theatres throughout the United States and abroad including the Guthrie, the Public Theatre/NYSF, the Alley, the Mark Taper Forum, the Ahmanson, Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Folger, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and many others. He has worked overseas in Salzburg, Edinburgh, Paris, Berlin, Venice and Japan. Outside of traditional theatres, Joseph has directed projects in a maximum-security prison, in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina and in the West Bank and Gaza. As an actor Joseph has worked with many of the theatre’s foremost directors including Garland Wright, Anne Bogart, Jon Jory, Peter Sellars, Sir Peter Hall, JoAnne Akalaitis, Robert Woodruff and others. Joseph is the recipient of an NEA Millennium Grant, was a participant in the Career Development Program for Directors through TCG, and was named byAmerican Theatre magazine as one of 25 theatre artists who will have a significant impact on the field over the next quarter century. His production of Hamlet at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC was awarded the 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Production. Joseph is a member of Under the Radar’s Director’s Circle.

  • Yvonne Erickson

    If only all theater companies could be as inclusive as what you write about PlayMakers. In these times of competing for every dollar from audience ticket sales to grants, would it not be a wonderful thing for theatres to celebrate each other’s work through every means possible…social networking, e-marketing, reaching out to subscribers to invite them to see a terrific work at another theatre? What goes around comes around. Theatre is a shared experience not just for the audience and the artists on stage but for the theatres themselves in their own community of producing entities. Perhaps it’s about survival but beyond just surviving it can be about new growth, understanding and creating a larger forum for every taste and audience preference. It would mean theatre runners would have to not just talk to each other (after all, talk is cheap) but pay attention to and know each other’s work. What world that would be.

  • Miranda Hassett

    I’m a church leader and I feel like so much of what you say here, could be said about churches too – and we need to hear it. Thanks for these courageous and clear words.

  • brendanmccallnorway

    Thank you for the article, Joseph. I agree with you that one of “our main failing(s) as a field… is how we take insufficient care of one another,” and how we as a class of theater workers–whether it be performers, writers, technicians, designers, or producers–tend to adopt this consciousness of lack, rather than a perspective of opportunity. It´s far easier to complain and criticize, than to actually do something, take action, attempt to contribute towards the solution.

    I was curious when you described the length of our business as being 2000 years old; how did you come by that number? I would argue that it´s at least 4500 years old, as I using the Abydos passion play as a starting point.

    Also, I liked your concluding example of Anne Bogart´s production of Chuck Mee´s ORESTES, using the vocabulary of Viewpoints. Mary Overlie –the creator of the Viewpoints and Anne´s teacher–has been teaching that work at the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University´s Tisch School of the Arts since 1975. And while some may consider that approach to theater and acting “experimental”, for many it is considered essential training for contemporary performance.

    Brendan McCall
    Artistic Director, Ensemble Free Theater Norway

  • Wayne Alan Blood

    Great article, Joseph.

  • Helen Rigby

    I have been saying for years that the audience was “old” when I began working in the theater lo so many years ago – and they are still gray-haired – but they are still there. Old audiences are dying – but they are being replaced by new old audiences. So what’s to worry about but to do your best work.