MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On Friday, the Guthrie Theater begins its new season with the opening of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

And for the first time in 20 years, someone not named Joe Dowling will be in charge as artistic director.

The new leader is Joseph Haj, 51. For the past several weeks, he has been meeting with — and listening to — Guthrie subscribers.

“There’s great love for this organization, extraordinary love for the Guthrie in this community,” he said.

As he takes over, Haj said he’s looking for the best ways to use the facility and the organization to serve the community.

“As one of the nation’s flagship theaters, we have to be a lot of things to a lot of people,” he said. “We can’t be one thing. We can’t be just the classics company. We can’t be just a contemporary play company. So a great season for me will feel like a meal: not all dessert, not all meat, but some of this and some of that.”

In the late 80s and early 90s, Haj appeared at the Guthrie in the early stages of his acting career. He credits theater with helping shape his life after a troubled childhood.

As the son of Palestinian immigrants, he said he also understands the importance of diversity.

“Growing up outside the majority culture, of course, one is sensitized to how many voices there are and how easily dominant one voice can be,” he said.

His decisions will also affect the Guthrie’s bottom line. Two years ago, under different leadership, ticket sales dropped, leaving the theater with a yearly deficit of $438,000.

“I don’t think it’s a balance between ‘do we make things people like’ or ‘do we make art?’ I think we can make art that people like and that are connective,” he said.

Before the Guthrie, Haj led PlayMakers Repertory Company in North Carolina, and he has directed at theaters around the U.S.

This season, he will direct both a Shakespeare play, Pericles, and a musical, South Pacific, at the Guthrie.

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