Abraham Lincoln had his cabinet of rivals. Neil Armstrong had mission control. Guthrie Theater artistic director Joe Haj has built a small but potent team of all-stars who are highly sought-after leaders in their respective disciplines.
“If you’re a ballplayer and the Yankees call, you go,” said production director David Stewart. “And if you’re in theater and Joe Haj calls you to come join him at the Guthrie? Hell, yeah, you’re coming.”
Here is the Haj team, in their own words.
The playmaker: Jeffrey Meanza
His role: Associate artistic director. Gregarious and playful, he runs the artistic and educational departments. He’s been Haj’s right-hand man since 2007, when Haj ran PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Back story: Age 38. Grew up in a Sicilian-American family in Modesto, Calif. Has a B.A. in theater and performance from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in acting from the University of North Carolina. “I have a silliness about myself and try to hold on to that fact. We play dress-up and pretend. It’s beautiful and incredibly skilled, but you have to hold on to that sense of play in the work.”
The spark: “I started doing theater when I was 5. I saw community theater productions of ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Annie.’ When I saw Peter Pan fly, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ My parents were really supportive. When I got to college, I tried to make a responsible choice, so I studied urban education and comparative literature. But then one day I came out to my parents and said, ‘I want do theater.’ They said, ‘We kind of knew already.’ ”
Career: “I met Joe in 2004 at PlayMakers Rep in a production of ‘King Lear.’ Joe was assistant director and I played the Duke of Albany. We hit it off and stayed friends. When he took over PlayMakers in 2007, I came down to visit a friend in the acting company. Joe and I started talking. He invited me down, and my intention was to be there for a summer. That summer ended up lasting eight years. I was able to be an actor, director, teacher. It taught me so much about the field and developing my own aesthetic as a leader and producer.”
Getting to the Guthrie: He started work just one month after Haj, replacing Dowling associate John Miller-Stephany. “I was surprised when I came here just how much of what I knew aligned with this artistic department.”
On Haj: “What Joe and I brought here was us. We have a way of working with each other, and are open and affable. He is the senior leader, but his door is open for real, and he’s so approachable.”
The calculator: Jennifer Bielstein
Her role: Managing director. Cerebral and focused, she serves as chief operating officer to Haj’s CEO, overseeing business operations.
Back story: Age 47. Born in Lubbock, Texas, “but we moved around a lot, following my dad’s job.” (He worked in the oil industry as a chemical engineer.) A runner and ardent Prince fan, she has a B.A. in business and theater from the University of North Carolina and an MBA from Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.
The spark: “I took a drama class and fell in love with the teamwork of theater. I stage-managed, did all kinds of stuff. But what it really made me see was that I wanted to do something I was going to be passionate about.”
Career: She got her start in Chicago, running a restaurant and then working at two small theaters “before my job was eliminated. I got on my bike and rode on over to the Lincoln Park Zoo, where I got a job.” After two years as membership coordinator — and launching a popular concert series at the zoo — she dived back into the stage realm with Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theatre, then managed a leading regional company, Actors Theatre in Louisville, for 10 seasons.
Getting to the Guthrie: “I chair the diversity task force for the League of Resident Theatres [a national organization for regional theaters]. Joe and I knew each other and had shared passions, but we never spoke about working together.” When the Guthrie recruiter’s call came, though, she leapt at the opportunity.
On Haj: “Joe says it beautifully: When Tyrone Guthrie founded the theater, he was already one of the most acclaimed directors in the world. The Guthrie started out with a lot of strengths, and we have the opportunity to come in, in year 53, and build on that great success.”
The socialite: Danielle St. Germain-Gordon
Her role: Development director. Stylish and intensely social, she leads a nine-member group of fundraisers that has pulled in more than $50 million in her four years on the job.
Back story: Age 47. Born in Boston, “the youngest of four of a work-at-home mom and a dentist.” She has a degree in art history from Loyola Marymount University.
The spark: “I was raised in an arts-centric family. My parents would take us to the Boston Pops, and we’d beg to get out of it. Now, all four of us are totally invested in the arts. Everyone in this field can point to a teacher, and for me that was Sister Ursula, who had a humanities club at Ursuline Academy, with busts of all the Greek gods. She took us to see ‘Camelot.’ It was magical.”
Career: In 2000, St. Germain-Gordon was living in Washington, D.C., when a “crappy telemarketing call” from the Shakespeare Theatre led to a job leading its call center. “So I’m working there, selling a lot of subscriptions, and I notice that a lot of the most well-dressed, fashionable ladies are coming in later in the day. They’re in development. Mind you, I knew nothing of development, but I wanted to be like them. So I convinced [the artistic director] to give me a shot. We raised tens of millions of dollars, and I found that not only can I do that, I love it.”
Getting to the Guthrie: In early 2013, she was working at Arena Stage in D.C. when Joe Dowling called. “I said, ‘I’ll help you find someone.’ He said, ‘Come take a look.’ I came out and saw ‘Nice Fish’ and ‘Primrose Path.’ I thought it could be interesting. Then I talked to a close friend, Ford Bell, who’s from here and loves this place to pieces. He said, ‘Hang up the phone and take the job.’ ”
On Haj: “I love change. I knew I would have two years of Joe Dowling, who is a legend in Washington for his directing there. But then I get to work with Joe Haj, who’s an artist to the core, so insightful and open and is the ultimate change agent. He’s infused this place with such new energy and light.”
The builder: David Stewart
His role: Production director. Charismatic and charming, he oversees the scene shop, stage management, costumes, etc.
Back story: Age 49. Born in Denver, “the son of a barber and a stay-at-home mom who had an eighth-grade education,” he has a BFA in stage management from Webster University. One of the highest-profile African-Americans in his craft, he has led national efforts to diversify the industry’s backstage operations.
The spark: “Everybody has that one teacher. I did, too. You have to understand, I was a C student all the way through 11th grade. In junior year, my buddy said, ‘Why don’t you take stagecraft? It’s an easy A.’ My teacher, John van Epps, pushed me to be not just a better student, but a better human being. I was growing up to take over my dad’s barbershop. But John said I could go to school for this. He opened up my world.”
Career: “I actually worked at Children’s Theatre for the 1999-2000 season as production stage manager, but that’s a funny story. When I first came into the business, someone told me that after 10 years, I was gonna hit a brick wall. And sure enough, I did. I left theater and moved South to become a project manager for an info technology company. Then that business started to go under, so I went back to theater. I worked at the University of Wisconsin for nine years and am a Badger to this day.”
Getting to the Guthrie: He was teaching at the University of Texas when the call came. “In Wisconsin, the Packers are owned by the community. In Minnesota, it’s the Guthrie.” His predecessor, Frank Butler, lasted 18 years. “If I’m here that long, I’m gonna be tired, too. What we’ve shifted since we got here was this sense of playfulness, this openness.”
On Haj: “Joe is our guiding star, and we’re all putting our shoulders in it. I liken the experience of working at the Guthrie to riding a horse. The wind’s in your face and you’re gonna go on a wild, muscular ride. Sometimes your thighs are sore and your muscles hurt like a big dog. But I love my job and the people who work here.”
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390 • @rohanpreston