3On November 3, SDCF proudly presented the Zelda Fichandler Award to director JOSEPH HAJ. Below are Mr. Haj’s remarks given at the awards event in New York City at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.
On Being Profoundly Gifted
by Joseph Haj
Thank you Oskar [Eustis] for those beautiful remarks. Oskar is one of my favorite artists, artistic directors, thinkers and human beings and I am terrifically honored to be introduced by him tonight. Thank you, my friend.
I’d like to take a moment to recognize the extraordinary finalists for this award: my brother-in-arms in North Carolina, Preston Lane; my friend, the exceptional Kwame Kwei-Armah, and the very, very talented Tracy Brigden, Bonnie Monte and Steve Cosson. I’m proud to be in their company. And I’m honored to share in this gathering tonight with the Callaway Award-winners John Rando and Martha Clark, two artists I have admired from afar for many years.
The best part of winning this award is that I got to spend an hour on the phone with Zelda [Fichandler], who is an inspiration. We spent a lot of time speaking about the early days of the regional theatre movement, and I kept feeling like, this is what it’s all about; there are those who come before, and the best of them hand down their wisdom to others.
Which leads me to my remarks today. To win an award like this you have to be profoundly gifted, so I’d like to talk about that.
If you are sitting in this room today, and you have a career in the theatre, it is because you too are gifted. Not in some delusional, “I was born with my genius fully formed” kind of a way, but in this manner: Somewhere along your way, someone who understood what you were after, or what you might be about, gave some of what they had so that you could have some of what you wanted. Those are gifts. And they ought to be acknowledged as such.
I was gifted by Barbara Lowery, my high school drama teacher who saw an angry and disaffected teenager and encouraged me into the theatre.
I was gifted to be Ben Cameron’s teaching assistant when I was in graduate school at UNC; and I would watch and learn as he held 300 students—non-majors at that—spellbound with his Chekhov lecture. To this day I’ve never met anyone better at describing what we do with such intelligence, skill and passion.
I was twenty-four and gifted by JoAnne Akalaitis, who never turned over my headshot to see that there was little on my resume. She liked me and she cast me in THE SCREENS. 5 1/2 hours of Genet at the Guthrie; and that changed everything for me, and led to a life-long friendship. And I was gifted by the late Garland Wright, one of our truly great directors, who had an influence upon me entirely disproportionate to the time I spent with him. Garland once said to me that “There is only one reason to be a theatre artist finally; and that’s because it makes you a bigger person. And Anne Bogart, who called me and said “I’m starting a company with Tadashi Suzuki and I’d like you to join”, and became a lifelong colleague, friend and mentor. And Robert Woodruff, the most fearless of artists, who has also been an extraordinary friend and guide. And Emilya Cachapero at TCG who, when I received her call that I had been selected for the Career Development Program by a panel of SDC directors said, “we would like you to spend the time in this program shadowing artistic and executive directors about the non-artistic aspects of the job, because we think you’re going to run a theatre someday”. I had never said, to myself or to anyone else, that I would be interested in running a theatre. But like the very best mentors and guides, they knew, a minute before I did, where I might provide greatest service. And Oskar opened his heart, his mind, his office and his institution to me so that I could learn, and so did Michael Wilson at Hartford Stage, and so did Libby Appel and Paul Nicholson at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Leading an organization now, I can well imagine how vulnerable and exposing that could be, and they were great friends to me and gave me room to grow.
I carry all of those I mentioned, and so many more, with me all the time. And I suppose that’s how we speak of those who have impacted our lives; that we carry them with us. But that sounds like a burden; like luggage. My experience of it is the opposite. They live inside me in such a way that I feel supported and buoyed and carried along by them.
There is no greater gift an artist—maybe a human being—can be given, than to be believed in. And I have always been touched, and not a little surprised, when those I respected so much believed in me. There have been so many who saw the modesty of my talents and the desperation of my dreams. And they heaped gifts upon me by sharing their wisdom and their expectations of what it means to be an artist. They gave me so much of themselves that I grew and grew and grew. And so I am gifted.
And as we claw each other for room, space, voice, resources, and attention. And as our fear of our own inadequacy presents as bitterness and envy we do enormous damage to ourselves and to our community. There is nothing more sacred or more ludicrous to do with one’s life than to become a theatre artist. We make it much harder for ourselves by taking insufficient care of one another. Hoarding our gifts won’t protect us from irrelevance. The best artists I know are continually giving them away; if for no other reason than that they know those gifts were given to them, and that they don’t own them.
Ours remains an apprenticeship game. The craft is passed on. We learn to be good by being in the room with people who are better. I turned to directing as a mid-career actor, and I knew how to direct plays when I began to direct, because the very best in the business had been showing me how for years.
And I had parents who taught me the beauty and grace in caring for others. And I have a wife and a daughter who daily call me towards my best self. And I have colleagues who I work with every day who are as good as anyone in the business at what they each do. And I serve a community that is dedicated to its own growth through its participation in the life of the theatre I lead.
Given such an embarrassment of gifts, being so profoundly gifted, how could I not have met with some success? Martha Graham once said that “Art is the presence of the ancestor”. I realize now that it is not only the presence of those in my biological ancestry, but those in my theatrical ancestry. Some have passed on, some are far away and some are in this room. And I have their blood in my veins. They give me courage, they give me strength, they give me belief in this great art form that we all practice.
I owe so much to so many, that it is hard to take credit for very much at all. But I am grateful for this award, as it has given me the opportunity to say thank you to those who have blazed the way, lit the path, and encouraged me forward. And to all of you who have joined us tonight; thank you. This is the only family that I ever wanted to belong to and I am honored by this recognition.