Theater J names Hayley Finn as its new artistic director


Hayley Finn, a director and longtime producer of new plays in Minneapolis, has been selected as the new artistic director of D.C.’s Theater J, one of the nation’s most influential Jewish theater companies.

The 48-year-old Finn has for the past decade and a half been in Minnesota’s largest city, where she serves as associate artistic director of the Playwrights’ Center, a highly regarded outlet for play development. Over the course of her career, Finn, with both undergraduate and graduate theater degrees from Brown University, has conducted close to 1,000 workshops for new plays.

“My artistic work as a director has largely been focused on plays around Jewish identity or plays that really resonate with Theater J’s mission,” Finn said, in a Zoom interview. “So there was this great alignment and it seems like this is a great opportunity to create this next generation of work for the theater, and the D.C. community, but hopefully for beyond D.C.”

Finn, who was born and raised in New York City, succeeds Adam Immerwahr, who joined the company in 2015 and left last year to head Seattle’s Village Theatre. She starts on a part-time basis on Feb. 1 and assumes the position full-time on April 10.

It is both an interesting and challenging time to run a theater devoted, as Theater J’s mission statement describes it, to “ethical questions of our time, inter-cultural experiences that parallel our own, and the changing landscape of Jewish identities.” Founded in 1990, the company is an arm of the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington on 16th Street NW. It frequently deals head-on with Jewish subjects, as evidenced by its current offering, “Two Jews Walk Into a War.” But over the years it has also produced works by non-Jewish artists on related themes, as it did last year with a revival of “Fires in the Mirror,” Anna Deavere Smith’s investigation of riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn sparked by a clash between Orthodox Jews and Blacks.

An audit released last April by the Anti-Defamation League found that 2021 had the highest number of antisemitic acts in the United States since the ADL began keeping statistics in 1979. Data of this sort is of course on the minds of security-conscious Jewish organizations such as the JCC, which this month also welcomed a new chief executive officer, Jennifer Zwilling. Finn observed that a theater embedded in a Jewish institution would have to be engaged in a discussion of the turmoil in American society.

“It’s what you put on the stage, and I think it’s the programming that you do around that,” she said. “One of the things that I loved most about Theater J is there was a sense that conversation is important. And that’s the kind of theater that I love: How can we have conversations around the work, putting it in context, allowing for multiple communities and perspectives to come and engage with the work? All of that I think is really important.”

Howard Menaker, who sits on Theater J’s 29-person advisory council and chaired the search committee, said Finn was the “clear, unanimous choice” among the seven finalists.

“She had that combination of everything we were looking for,” Menaker said in an interview. “Leadership position at a good theater, producing experience. We were looking for directing experience, too — and someone who understood partnerships not only with other theaters, but with the community in which they thrive.” Finn, he added, “led a capital campaign. Not every artistic director has a strong fundraising background.”

As a program within a larger nonprofit, Theater J has enviable advantages, such as the use of an essentially rent-free, 236-seat theater and some expenses such as utilities covered. But it faces some of the same difficulties as other theater companies, including rebounding from pandemic-related dips in attendance and coaxing people back into public spaces.

According to David Lloyd Olson, Theater J’s managing director, the company has seen a small but welcome uptick in subscribers of late: The theater, whose annual budget is more than $2 million, counted 982 subscriptions at the time of the shutdown in March 2020. It has 989 today. That comes at a time when some synagogues are seeing growth in their congregations — perhaps a reflection of Jews seeking community at a time of rising threat.

Finn traces the start of her play-birthing path to the experimentalist New York dramatist Mac Wellman, whose work she was invited to direct at the Playwrights’ Center. “Mac was the person who brought me out as his director and we worked on plays,” she said. “I fell in love with the Playwrights’ Center because, you know, it’s all about new work, and then I stayed on and became the associate artistic director … It’s built up to a much more national platform over my tenure.”

The belief in evolving work will certainly inform her new assignment. “It’s essential, I think, for the vitality of theater, that we invest in writers,” Finn said. “I see that as very, very important.”

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