"The only reason to be a theater artist is that it makes you a bigger person," said Joe Haj in his office at the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, which houses PlayMakers Repertory Company, and where he was making final preparations for a high-profile, high-risk theater project, one that would make him grow more than even he could guess.
Mr. Haj was going to Washington, where he would mount his interpretation of one of the greatest and most baffling plays in the English language in the replica of the Globe Theater at the prestigious Folger Shakespeare Library. At the crossroads of power and intellect in the nation's capital, Haj would have his first encounter with Hamlet.
"How perfect can we make our Hamlet, is the question, and an anxiety-provoking one," said Haj, but on March 18 he was as ready as he could be to take it on.
By the second week, rehearsals were flowing well. Haj's charisma, his curiosity and his nurturing instincts were all on display as he coached, nudged and complimented the actors toward their shared goal of finding the people in their characters. According to Emily Ranii, the artistic director of Carrboro's Artscenter Stage, who has directed at PRC2, Haj "works without ego. He's wholly collaborative. It's all about coming together to make work." Already there were flashes of brilliance among the cast, and the spirit in the room was intimate, calm and warm. The only sign of Haj's anxiety was a repeated fussing about the placement of some chairs.
Three weeks later, disaster struck. At the last rehearsal before previews, the theater jittered with tension and fear. Justin Adams, who was playing Laertes, was in the hospital, seriously ill. Haj had just cancelled the first preview. The understudy looked like a deer in the headlights. Hamlet reeled around, working his soliloquy. Haj pulled a Camel filter from a hard-pack, tugged his ball cap down and headed into the rain for what solace nicotine could give.
When he returned, professionalism took over, and the cast worked into the night, Haj unfailingly calm and courteous but still obsessing about the chairs. They pulled off a preview the next night—and the fire alarm went off in the middle of the closet scene. When the audience was allowed to return, Polonius had to die all over again.
A few months earlier, American Theatre magazine had named Haj among the 25 theater artists likely to shape American theater for the next 25 years. Now he was tackling the greatest play in the English language in a high-profile venue, but it seemed like anyone's guess whether this Hamlet would cement or undo his reputation.
When Joe Haj first came to Chapel Hill in 1985 to attend the Professional Actor Training Program at UNC, he had almost no experience with Shakespeare. Twenty-five years later, he not only runs the theater connected with that program but has connected PlayMakers with local audiences and with the national theater community in a way that it never has been before.
"I wanted to have an important regional theater," says Haj in an interview conducted before he departed for the rehearsals in Washington. But he had inherited the 2006–07 main-stage season in an organization that had been steadily losing the interest of the community for several seasons and that was running a half million dollars in the red. By the following year, he'd erased the deficit, and with the first season he planned, he showed himself to be the turnaround leader the administration had hoped for. "A New Day at PlayMakers" proclaimed banners outside the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, and the lovely production of Romeo and Juliet playing inside confirmed their verity. In a testament to the renewed audience interest, during the season just concluded, every show came in over ticket projection. The two-part Dickens extravaganza hit 140 percent; The Importance of Being Earnest came in at a whopping 175 percent ahead of projections.
But Haj's road to becoming an effective head of a major regional theater was a circuitous and unexpected one. The educated, talented, ambitious achiever—compelling actor, imaginative director, efficient administrator—what in the flowering time of Shakespearean drama would have been called "a man of parts"—was once just another slacker teenager.
The Miami native, a terrible student by his own account, planned to skip or sleep through first period in his senior year of high school. To this end, he signed up for a drama elective—and sealed his fate. He'd never read a play in his life. He'd seen but one: The Night of the Iguana ("I was pissed off that the iguana never appeared"). But when he stumbled on Death of a Salesman and presented Biff's monologue in class, "my teacher cried," he said. "I had that one great, great teacher who grasped how disaffected I was." He skipped his other classes instead.
(And typically for Haj, he kept up with her, last fall inviting her to attend the opening of Nicholas Nickleby, his biggest, most daunting project to date.)
After falling hard for acting in high school, Haj received his BFA degree in theatre from Florida International University in Miami. But when he arrived at UNC, he had done only a cut-down Twelfth Night and a local Romeo and Juliet. Fortunately, the school placed him with actor Michael Cumpsty, who had just received his MFA but was staying on to teach for a year and needed a roommate. "I read the first 10 pages of Richard II ten times and I was like ... I'm out of here ... I couldn't understand it." Cumpsty (who now has a successful New York career) basically stood over Haj until he got the hang of reading Shakespeare. Then, says Haj, "I devoured the rest of the canon."
When he graduated from UNC, he was "still on the fence between New York and LA." Opting for the East Coast, he took his first professional job in summer stock theater in Maine, and based himself in New York. In between doing legal proofreading and off-off-Broadway shows, he got the opportunity, through his old friend Cumpsty, to audition for Joanne Akalaitis, who was casting for Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater.
"How much luck plays a part in these things was not lost on me," Haj says. He worked at the Guthrie for a year and a half, and, he says, once he had those Guthrie creds, he was "allowed inside" the big national theater circle. There was no longer the question of whether he was an actor—only whether he was the right actor for a part. Two years out of school, he was honing his acting along with another highly useful skill: making and keeping personal artistic connections. Today he devotes one out of four pages of his résumé to listing his "network of colleagues"—actors, directors and designers from around the country. He has brought a number of them to PlayMakers to work with students and the resident company.
Haj made the leap to Los Angeles for a television pilot—and stayed 14 years, having met and married a young producer and actor, Deirdre Imershein (now Deirdre Haj, executive director of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival). He had done enough theater by then that he "didn't fall off the grid."
"I did on-camera work [as Joe Hodge] to pay the bills," he says, "and then I would go act." When his wife became pregnant with their daughter, Haj realized he could no longer spend long acting stints on the road and began to look for something to direct. "Actors require someone to reflect their work back at them accurately," says Haj, so that they may, in Hamlet's words, "hold the mirror up to nature." He was ready to be that mirror to the mirror.
The first whole play Haj directed was Shakespeare's Henry V—no point in starting small—with a cast of prisoners in a maximum-security block at California State Prison, LA County. The opening chorus of Henry V calls for a poor theater aesthetic—perfect for a prison. The director of the arts-in-prisons program had told him he wouldn't be able to keep all those guys in a room for three months, and besides, there was no money. So Haj wrote the highest-ranked grant application in that year's pool to the California Arts Council, got the money, and the director relented. Haj not only kept the men engaged, he had them present several performances, which, naturally, garnered quite a bit of attention, resulting in more directing work.
Eventually, David Hammond, then artistic director of PRC, invited him back to Chapel Hill to direct a couple of plays while on a director's career development grant from the Theatre Communications Group, the national nonprofit theater umbrella and service organization. Much to his surprise, however, the grantors told Haj that he didn't need to shadow another director; he'd been in enough directors' rehearsal rooms already. They wanted him to shadow administrators, financial people, because they believed he would run a theater one day.
The day was upon him. While he was there working on Cyrano, UNC asked him to apply for the job of producing artistic director at PRC, and right after the show opened he became one of three finalists. After surviving a two-and-a-half-day interview process he called "grueling," Haj became the man in charge on July 1, 2006.
"Part of the charge of my job is to maintain a national network and to bring those artists here, as well as send out our artists," says Haj in answer to what constitutes a "national theater conversation." True to form, he mixed both to assemble his team for his Folger debut. He took PRC's designer Jan Chambers, UNC professor and video artist Francesca Talenti and Chapel Hill composer-musician Jack Herrick. "He enjoys bringing the musicians into the actions of the play," as if, "the music is another actor's part," says Herrick, who collaborated with Haj on the music for his Pericles.
It was the 2008 production of Pericles that attracted the attention of Folger Director of Public Programs Janet Griffin (whom he met through his network), who offered him a slot this season. There was one slight issue, though. Griffin wanted Hamlet, but Haj, for all his experience in the byways of Shakespeare, had never had anything to do with a production of the Danish play. He took a deep breath and said yes.
For his lead, he cast a high-intensity young actor with whom he'd never worked; PRC's Scott Ripley had had to drop out before rehearsals began, so the recast Horatio was another unknown. For his Claudius, he chose his old grad school comrade David Whalen. They know each other so well they speak in shorthand and gesture ("I'm 60 plays out of school," Whalen said, "and Joe is the best director I know"). He attached the remarkable Justin Adams, who has twice appeared at PRC as Laertes, and found his Ghost in Todd Scofield (formerly part of the Somnambulist Project in Chapel Hill). Haj focused on the lengthy play through the lens of Hamlet's grief over his dead father and cut the script to emphasize its propulsive revenge tragedy over its more elegiac, reflective qualities. He'd had a tour of the Folger Library's stupendous holdings, examining a long row of prompt books used by various great actors. "I felt myself in the river of tradition of this play," he said, and in he plunged.
The day following the fire-alarm preview, Haj was haggard and unshaven. It was T minus 1 and counting for the decision on whether to replace the stricken Adams with a new Laertes or leave in the understudy, a decision particularly fraught with dangers because the ill Adams was also the understudy for Hamlet.
But in the immortal words of Geoffrey Rush's theater producer in Shakespeare in Love, "all will turn out well; it always does." Adams made a miraculous recovery and proceeded to die onstage with greater verisimilitude than his recent near-death experience. The production was beautiful, startling, intelligent and humane. The chairs had even been in the right places. The high-level invited audience on opening night, including UNC actor Ray Dooley and other Chapel Hillians, paraded past Haj with thanks and congratulations as he stood, groomed and beaming, his hand cupping his young daughter's glossy head, his philosophy borne out.
"It is possible," says Haj, "to make even hard plays with big love and great joy."