Interview with Joseph Haj

Lauren Keating: Here we are in beautiful Ashland, working on Henry V, which is your third time to direct to the play, in addition to having acted in it twice.

Joseph Haj: It is. I was in Garland Wright and Charlie Newell’s production at the Guthrie when I was twenty-four or twenty-five years old. Then, I played Henry at a theater in Los Angeles. And then, it was the first play I ever directed—with maximum-security inmates at a men's prison in the Mojave Desert. And I directed it this past season in rep with the Henry IV’s at PlayMakers, the theater I lead in Chapel Hill, before coming out here to direct it at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Lauren: Maximum-security prison is not a typical first directing gig.

Joe: No, its not. At the time, I was turning down more and more acting jobs. There came a point where I started to feel hungry for a kind of authorship of the event that acting didn’t allow. The list of directors that I trusted to accurately reflect my work back to me was getting shorter and shorter, and my wife said, “If you don’t think anyone else knows how to do it, maybe you should take a crack at it.”

Lauren: So, how did it come about?

Joe: I wanted to make Henry with real people, and I wanted to test ideas that I had about the play. So, I was put in touch with a woman who was the Artist Facilitator at this correctional facility. (This position used to exist at all California correctional facilities; not the case anymore.) Normally, they’d bring people in to show the guys how to make ceramic ashtrays for their cells, or some other nonsense. I brought her the idea for Henry, and she said, “There’s no way.”  If I wanted to make something with two guys, a short thing, maybe it could work. Maybe. But that these guys, black, white, Latino, could not be in the same room together, let alone make a play and memorize Shakespeare; it was unfathomable to her. But, I kept bugging her, so she said that if I could find the money, she’d let me give it a try. I wrote a grant to the California Arts Council, which turned out to be the highest rated grant of the year, and she was stuck with me.

Lauren: Did you encounter the kind of resistance she predicted?

Joe: The first time I walked in the room, there were all the white guys sitting together, all the black guys together, the Latino guys in their section—complete segregation. I thought, how are we going to make a play from this place? But, that fell away in making the thing. I wasn’t there as social worker; I was there to make a play. Anybody who wasn’t interested in that was welcome to leave. I really didn’t have any thought that these guys would be rehabilitated. But, the complex set of skills that is required to make a play, to be part of that process—putting in hard work now for something that pays off later—that was new for these guys. There was this one guy, huge, strapping, sleeved-down tattoos, Aryan nation guy playing Pistol. If I had to pick one person, out of the whole cast least likely to be affected or experience some growth as a result of the process, it would have been this guy. He was really smart, but always challenging, always in trouble on the yard, angry guy. I had an African-American playing the Boy, and there was this moment where I wanted Pistol to pick up the Boy. And, he would not do it. Would not consider it. A week before our performance, he got into a verbal fight with a corrections officer, and he was written up and confined to quarters. I went to the Sergeant, begging him to suspend the disciplinary order so that we could do the show. For some reason, he consented. When the corrections officers and the Sergeant saw the performance, they tore up the disciplinary order. That just doesn’t happen. It was something about how hard these guys had worked, and how beautifully they told the story. Years later, I’m sitting at my desk at Playmakers, it’s my first year on the job, and I get a call from that guy, saying he’s out, he’s a Production Assistant on Law & Order in New York, and that experience saved his life. We forget how powerful our art form can be. One of the arguments to keep me from doing the show at all was that these guys would become targets for participating and would be attacked. But, of course, the guys were heroes on the yard. It brought the whole peculiar society that is a prison together in an incredible way.

The complex set of skills that is required to make a play, to be part of that process—putting in hard work now for something that pays off later—that was new for these guys.

Lauren: So then, does this experience of community building somehow get you thinking about arts leadership? 

Joe: No, not at all. I knew I wanted to keep directing more. But, it’s a tough transition to make the move from a mid-career actor to an early-career director. There’s a suspicion of actors turned directors that they won’t care about anything other than the acting. I came to realize that by spending the previous fifteen years in rehearsal rooms with some of the truly great directors, that I had had an incredible directing education, and was able to implement those skills that I had been, to greater and lesser degrees of awareness, studying in my directors. I knew I wanted to keep learning, and that I needed some legitimacy. So I applied, and was one of six directors selected that cycle, for the TCG Career Development grant. Most directors spend that time (six months over the course of two years), shadowing and observing senior directors in rehearsal. The TCG panel saw that I had been in talented directors’ rehearsal rooms most of my professional life, and they said to me, “We want you to spend your six months on the grant shadowing artistic and executive directors about the non-artistic aspects of the job, because we think you're going to run a theater someday.” I had never articulated that as a goal, but I was honored that they saw that in me. And, I followed their advice narrowly. Through shadowing some great leaders, I started to have ideas about what it is to run a theater, and how I might do it if given the opportunity. I had so few preconceived notions about what running a theater should be, and came at it with no historical baggage or assumptions, which allowed me a kind of fresh point of view.

a man smiling at the camera
Joseph Haj. Photo by Andrea Akin

Lauren: Now that you're running your own theater, have you been able to put these ideas into practice? 

Joe: I have. Of course, the details of running a theater are so intricate and complicated. PlayMakers happens to be a theater inside of a university. Universities are always perceived as ivory towers by their surrounding community, and here we were, an ivory tower within an ivory tower. 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. We’re not seeking to be prescriptive or pandering; we’re seeking to be relevant. Our first charge, among many, is to be important to our local community.

Lauren: In addition to being active in the Chapel Hill community, you sit on the TCG Board, have an active voice in national conversations and direct all over the country. How does your relationship to your local community speak to what you’re seeing on a national level?

Joe: All theater is local. And, I think of it in concentric circles:  At the center is a community of artists, which expands to the theater’s staff and supporters, then to our university community, and then to the local community. And, I have found that we have received a great deal of national attention, and have been part of a national conversation, by making a theater that is meaningfully impactful to the community which we are charged to serve.

Lauren: And yet, when each of our local communities is so specific and diverse, why is that not represented in our leaders? In thinking about community in this concentric and expansive way, why do you think that our national demographics, where people of color are concerned, are so under-represented in artistic leadership?

Joe: It’s so deeply rooted, and it’s a big problem. All we do in theater is talk about diversity and inclusiveness—unless what you would like to do is run a LORT theater, in which case diversity is impossible and you are not included. There’s currently no place for diversity there. And, I have to say that my colleagues, the leaders of our seventy-five LORT theaters, are the most hard-working individuals; they are deeply invested in engagement, and I adore them. There is not a single LORT theater that is not devoting resources to some idea about diversity and inclusion, and engaging in it on some level. But, when you see that only four of these seventy-five Artistic Directors, myself being one, are people of color, we have to take a really hard look at ourselves. It is not a pipeline problem. It is not a readiness problem. It is a glass ceiling problem. It is a problem in our hiring methodology, where several unconscious biases are at play. From Boards, to search committees, to executive search firms.

Lauren: When you talk about readiness, in some ways, this can seem like a self-perpetuating problem. If the majority of our artistic leaders are white, when an organization goes hunting for their next leader, they’re looking at this pool of people to draw from, all of them white, most of them male—because no one wants to give the keys to the car to someone who has never driven before.

Joe: That’s true—which is why we need to cast a wider net. There are leaders of color running meaningful organizations, not LORT institutions, because LORT won’t hire them. Nobody is letting them get far in the conversation. There is a perceived bias that these individuals are going to want to curate in some way that leans heavily toward their own identity and experience. But there are many leaders of color, like myself, who understand their identity as only a small part of their art, not the whole of it. In assuming that these artists and producers have some secret agenda, we’re discounting potent, extraordinary leaders. And, look, readiness to take over a LORT theater, even for the most experienced, is a myth. Nobody is “ready.”  Each of these theaters is idiosyncratic: in their culture, in their relationship to community, in their organizational structure, in their strengths and weaknesses. To borrow from the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future gains. The Board is always taking an enormous risk, with an enormous potential downside. You can’t be wrong, and there’s no way to know if you’re right. And so, when you’re taking a chance, you’re going to put your money on the person who makes you feel most comfortable. Who is most like you. Its no surprise then to see Boards, which are predominantly comprised of white people, select those candidates that feel most familiar and most safe.

Lauren: Speaking of Boards, you touch another interesting point, which is that most of these searches are not spoken about until the new person has been hired.

Joe: Right. There is, by necessity (because candidates are often people running other theaters), a lack of transparency. I know of a recent search for a new leader of a theater in a community that is twenty-five percent African-American. And I know for a fact, though I’m not sure the community does, that no candidates of color were brought in to interview.

I’m a football fan, and I support the idea of the Rooney Rule.

Lauren: The Rooney Rule?

Joe: The Rooney Rule was implemented in professional football in 2003. And, I should say up front that everybody hated it. It stated that when a head coaching position opened, there must be a minority candidate interviewed for the job. The owners hated it because they didn’t want to be told what to do. Minority coaches hated it because they didn’t want to be anyone’s token. And now, here we are almost ten years later, and the Rooney Rule is an unqualified success. What happened was, these candidates of color would come, and impress, and the team would still hire the other guy, the white guy, they originally had in mind. But, a few years later, when the job opened up again, they’d come back to the impressive candidate whom they didn’t hire the first time, and he’d get the job. There have been twenty-one black head coaches in the NFL; fourteen of those have been hired since the Rooney Rule came into effect. Today, one in six NFL teams is led by minority Head Coaches. One in nineteen LORT theaters are led by Artistic Directors of color, and there have only ever been, I’ve been told, twelve leaders of color in the entire forty-six year history of LORT, a span that covers hundreds of leadership transitions.

Lauren: Without a governing body that has the authority to implement a kind of Rooney Rule in the LORT Theater, where does the responsibility then fall?

Joe: On all of us. I think it’s terrible that anything has to be imposed. I think there is a clear moral imperative that anytime there is an artistic or executive director change at a LORT theater, a candidate of color must be brought in to interview. It would be a clear message to the communities we serve that we are serious about diversity, even at the highest levels of our organizations, if this policy were adopted immediately and willingly by LORT leaders and those they answer to. There is a glass ceiling problem, and until we acknowledge that and actively work to move the needle on this, we’re going to see more of the same. This is not a pipeline issue. These leaders are out there; if you think it's a pipeline issue, you need to know more people. It is your weakness, not a weakness of the field. I'm not arguing that you must hire a leader of color. But, I am arguing that you must consider them, you must have them to the table, because I truly believe, as with the NFL, that we'll see different results.  

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The fact that, in 2012, we would even have to discuss a Rooney Rule boggles my mind. Who on earth would NOT bring in at least one people of color to interview? Even if we didn't all know tons of people of color who are eminently capable, which we do, there is these little things called Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Not to imply that idiots don't find ways to work around them, but no one can pretend they have never heard of them or anything. I am so tired of people being asshats about race and gender. Open your minds, folks—you might even get some new audiences if you try a different leader for once.

Mr. Haj,

Thank you for your thoughts. As a young, "early-career" producer and director, I'm often looking for leaders to look up to. I have been blessed to have mentors that look like me, though I still look at the current, and the future, state of the American Theatre and feel like there aren't the spaces and opportunities for leaders of color. While many advocate for these talented artists to create their own spaces and change the landscape, I often wonder what would happen if we, like you insist, change the way business is done in these larger, LORT, houses. I have often talked about the Rooney rule and would like to see something similar (just not sure how well it would be received). For fear of rambling and using the comment section as a soapbox, I'll end my thoughts by saying thank you once again- I'm glad to have found another leader to look towards for inspiration.

Joseph,

I brought up the idea of a "Rooney Rule" for regional theaters several years ago - and in the past it has been met with derision or with a sense of impossibility. I believe that non-profits (which is subsidized at local, state and federal funding) their boards AND their "search firms" must adhere to the equal opportunity laws and practices in place.