As a teen in the small South Dakota town of Sisseton, Sarah Rasmussen founded her first theatre company in her parents’ basement and used a local gym to stage plays for her fellow high schoolers. She’s always been a leader that way: After getting her directing MFA at UC-San Diego, she went to work at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, not simply as a director for hire but as the director the company’s Black Swan lab for new work, and she later served as head of the MFA directing program at University of Texas in Austin.
So when, in 2015, she got the job as artistic director of Minneapolis’s Jungle Theater, replacing its beloved founder Bain Boehlke after his 25 years at the helm, it was a sort of homecoming—not least because she first caught the live theatre bug on a trip to Minneapolis to see a play at the Guthrie Theater. Now she’s taken the reins of one of the nation’s leading LORT theatres, McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., where she succeeds Emily Mann, a theatrical force who can almost be counted as a re-founder of the flagship institution she took over in 1990.
I spoke to Rasmussen over Zoom recently from her office at the theatre, across the street from the faculty housing she shares with her husband and two small kids, about leading a theatre in the midst of a pandemic and an era of seismic social change.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Was that show at the Guthrie your first exposure to theatre?
SARAH RASMUSSEN: It was really what showed me what theatre could be. It was in the Garland Wright era at the Guthrie. He was a painter before he was ever a director, and so the visual aesthetic of his work was just absolutely stunning to me. It was really moving then to go back to Minneapolis, full circle, to run a theatre company, because although I never got to meet Garland, I then got to work with designers and actors who’d worked with Garland, and I got to learn about what it was that I fell in love with.
That was the first real theatre I saw as a teenager. But in this moment of virtual theatre, and the conversation about how it isn’t the same as live theatre, it’s been reminiscent for me of growing up as a kid in very isolated, rural America and seeing Great Performances and American Playhouse on PBS. As a fifth grader at sleepovers, I used to show the Spalding Gray Our Town to my friends; that was very formative for me. Life is so wild—now here I am at McCarter, and I remember walking in for my onsite interview here, thinking, “God, this is the theatre where Our Town was first performed.” Yeah, seeing a play on a screen is not the same as seeing a play live, but had I not seen theatre on film as a kid, I wouldn’t have known about those things. So it’s an interesting moment to think about access and about how we share stories right now. If it had been possible for me to be watching Paula Vogel’s Bard at the Gate as a teenager in love with theatre, that would’ve been really meaningful for me.
You’ve jumped ahead to virtual, so I’ll ask you about that. When the lockdown happened in March, I wondered if theatres were going to partly transform themselves into media companies; some had already beefed up their video and online efforts, and for many it’s now their main avenue. Can you talk about what the McCarter’s programming is looking like on that front?
I’m two and a half months in, and we just hired a wonderful associate artistic director, Nicole Watson. She and I are working on a virtual festival around the work of Adrienne Kennedy which we’re super excited about. It’s a co-production between Round House, where Nicole has been in D.C., and us, and I’m really excited about that for so many reasons, in terms of sharing that virtually and illuminating the visual, associative nature of Adrienne Kennedy’s work.
What will that mean for the future? I was talking with Nicole yesterday and saying, “We’re in the first trimester of this new chapter here.” I think there are so many ideas that are bubbling up that we’re exploring. I don’t think anything replaces the crackle and energy and ritual of being together with people. But I also get really excited about the access that digital can provide. So I think a conversation that looks at some kind of hybrid of those mediums is of great interest to us right now.
We’re also seeing our education classes really expand in this time, because people can take them from anywhere. I was just speaking this weekend with a seventh-grade girl from Philadelphia who said she’d always been too scared to do theatre, but because of these virtual classes, she thought, “I can try it,” and she’s fallen in love with it. She said, “I used to be an introvert, now I’m an extrovert, and I want to do theatre.” And it’s because of these classes. She also said honestly that she probably wouldn’t have been able to take these classes in person because it wouldn’t have worked with her parents’ schedule. So it’s interesting what we’ll keep from this time that we’ll want to fold into what we do even as we desperately look forward to gathering people in person again.
When do you think that will be at the McCarter?
We’re looking forward to a more traditional fall start in 2021. And if the stars align and we magically can come back in person sooner, we certainly have things that we’d love to greenlight. In the meantime, we’ve pivoted the Christmas Carol tradition to be A Christmas Carol @Home, where people can order it and it will include these lovely envelopes, and there will be little scripts with these readings where you can then do it at home with your family or over Zoom, sort of like A Christmas Carol meets a Seder. And we’re gonna partner with the 24-Hour Plays in the new year with a really cool piece called Manic Monologues that came out of students at Stanford, creating art around research about mental health, which I think will be really cool. Like I said, it’s the first trimester, so we have some other things that are brewing but we’re not ready to talk about yet.
I want to ask you about the We See You, White American Theater movement and demands. One thing that struck me about the latter document is that behind each of the demands you could clearly read a story, or many stories, of trauma, instances of exclusion, even if they were not specifically named. How have you and your board taken up the challenge of that document and taken those demands on board?
We’re spending time with them every week. We have a 90-minute meeting every week, and we’re spending that time mainly centered around looking at those. Like you said, the narrative behind each of those demands is lived experience. And there’s so much pain and grief in this moment of pausing, of people being laid off, and of companies having to downsize. At the same time, I see so much potential in terms of how we architect where we go next. I was talking to Ben Cameron the other day and he likened it to the Reformation. He said, “This is a moment where, as in all times of great change, we’ll either try to go back and cling to what we had, or it’s really an opportunity to to accelerate change and think about things differently.”
This was already going to be a moment of big transition after a 30-year tenure. Emily’s not a founder, but she might as well be, because her impact here was so profound. Having taken over from a founder in the past, I know that it’s a big moment of transition and change. And now, with how long this pandemic is going on, it starts to feel like, rather than a founder transition, we’re kind of becoming a startup in our own way. We’re a small staff, we’re resetting, we’re restarting. So there are conversations about We See You, conversations about the way we want to serve artists and serve community, and strategic thinking about that. It’s a really new day in terms of how we build that for so many reasons. So there are silver linings in that even amid the heartache of this time.
What do you miss most about live theatre?
So many things. We’ve started a conversation series; we got a fire pit, and we light it up on the front lawn and have conversations with members of the community of all ages, socially distant, outdoors, and we’re filming those to share. I was speaking yesterday to a brilliant faith leader in the community, Rev. Dr. Theresa S. Thames, who’s the associate dean of the chapel here. And it just felt magical to be with a person, live. It comes down to these very basic things: the ritual of it, the alchemy of being with other bodies, hearing other bodies laugh, feeling other bodies breathe, seeing people sing together and move together. That’s what I miss the most, what happens on that molecular level where we become something more than the sum of our parts. I miss that as a director too; I miss ensemble. I miss that feeling of being, being a part of something bigger than me.
And yet I really am drawn to what can happen online. Just a couple of weeks ago watched Eisa Davis’s Bulrusher, which she directed, and it was beautiful. There was something that felt sensual and tangible in the way she crafted that, with the music, the visuals, the way it was paced, the lyricism of it—I felt the real human soul in it. I think all of us are trying to figure out, how will you recreate that feeling of community and ritual? And just the way theatres smell, or that feeling of anticipation of the show about to start—it’s not quite the same when your email’s also open behind the screen.
Tell me a little bit about your time at the Jungle Theater. What were the challenges you faced, and what did you learn that you’ll apply to your new job?
Those five years were such a deep dive into learning leadership. I had been lucky to be on the inside of companies like OSF, and I don’t think I could have taken over a place like the Jungle had I not gotten to really watch amazing leaders and staff at work. This might be generational to some extent, but I think we’re in such an interesting moment where theatres like the Jungle were founded by an individual with a very specific aesthetic, and they built those theatres as the place they wanted to direct. I felt like I wanted to expand that. Of course I wanted to bring plays to light that I was really passionate about and that I wanted to direct, but at the same time I wanted the Jungle to be a home for artists to stretch and grow. I’m really proud of the work we did. There are artists we brought on to direct, like Marion McClinton and Casey Stangl, who were people I really admired who were just legendary, but think the thing I’m most proud of is that we launched a lot of artists careers there. We were the place that a lot of people got their first big directing job. And as a female director, I knew all too well that feeling of, no one’s going to hire me for a big thing till I’ve done a thing, but how do I do a thing until somebody hires me?
I really became passionate about that, especially with female directors and directors of color, and as a producer saying, “I want this to be about you. If I hire you to direct a play, it’s about you, the spotlight’s on you, I’m behind the scenes. I’m not looking over your shoulder, coming in at the last minute to tell you what I would have done differently, but to say, how do I how do I support you in this?” I’m super proud of that. Christina Baldwin, who’s running the Jungle, got her start directing there. Shá Cage directed School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play there. We were about open Redwood by Brittany K. Allen, with H. Adam Harris in March—that was going to be H.’s first big moment. I know that show will come back, and he will have a long life as a director in the theatre. I made it the place I had wanted as an early career director.
One challenge in succeeding a founder can be the relationship with the audience. Did Minneapolis theatregoers come along with you?
Yeah, it was absolutely terrifying to come in as a new artistic director, because I definitely shook things up. I did predominantly new work. We lost a few subscribers at the beginning, but we gained more. We were a really warm, intimate theatre playing to capacity, which felt great. I’ll be honest, when I interviewed for that job with the board, I talked about my love of new work, and they said, “Ooh, but new work is risky.” Noted—I filed that away in my brain. So when I came in, I didn’t necessarily talk about new work. I talked about great stories. I talked about the Jungle’s legacy of design. I talked about other things that felt like they were a throughline.
We certainly started to see a newer audience come join us. I think part of that was the shows. We did stuff like The Nether that just caught fire, because it was things people wanted to talk about: First Amendment rights, virtual reality, our relationship to technology. Not everyone loved it. Some people walked out. But it was sort of, “You’ve got to see this.” I did a production of The Wolves after it was in New York, and I worried a little bit about whether the traditional, slightly older subscriber base would come with us. That run completely sold out, and we brought it back.
I think we underestimate sometimes what people are hungry for. Older audience members said, “Oh, it just makes me think about my kids or my grandkids.” I think at the end of the day, we’re all the same age inside—we all have that part of us that we can access. We did a lot of intergenerational work too; I love plays where there are different ways for people to access them. That’s what I love about Brittany K. Allen’s Redwood. It’s a really intergenerational play. It’s looking at the hardest questions about our country’s racism, but through this really comedic warm voice. We did a lot of comedy too. I started to get braver about taking comedy seriously, because I think comedy is a way to talk about the hardest things in our shared humanity, but in a way that cracks us open and reveals our humanity to each other through laughter.
What are your impressions of the McCarter and of the Princeton area in general? It must be a weird time to start a new job in a new place.
There was a long and wonderful search process, so I got to take a couple of trips out here when everything was alive and bustling. I’m so glad I got to witness McCarter and the university and the surrounding community when everything was pre-pandemic. I was really drawn to the relationship between a theatre and university. I ran the MFA program at UT Austin as a professor before I went to the Jungle. So the potential between an academic institution that’s very devoted to liberal arts—it’s not a training program here, so it’s unlike other theatre or university relations in many ways, but the relationship between the university and and the theatre is really intriguing to me. I’m a big Jill Dolan fan, and Tracy K. Smith runs the Lewis Center right across the street, and Jane Cox at the Lewis Center—just such amazing people. I felt very spellbound by the conversations that happened during the search process and what was possible here.
I don’t know if I should even say this in print, but I feel like Emily has been an underrated leader in our field. A lot of people do rate her highly, but I feel like she’s not spoken about by critics or other observers as the pathbreaking leader she has been, particularly in the area of equity and inclusion. That’s partly because she’s a woman, obviously, but also because one way she’s been most inclusive is in an area that is often dismissed a woman’s concern, what is often called “work/life balance,” even though it just means recognizing people’s full lives and needs outside their work, and making the theatre a more human place for us all. I wonder if you agree that that’s part of her legacy, and if you plan to build on it.
I really agree. I first heard about the McCarter, as a young person interested in theatre, as this sort of magical place where all of these women worked—Liz Engelman and Mara Isaacs and Emily. And I definitely felt that from my first day here: Oh, this is a place that doesn’t just say it supports families, it has had that in its DNA for decades. I am the parent of two small children that I moved here in a pandemic, a four-year-old and a six-year-old, and it’s been such a relief to know that’s not a “thing” here. I also agree that Emily was doing a lot in terms of representation onstage before it was something that was talked about as widely. And I feel very fortunate to be building on that legacy and not starting from scratch in terms of support for parents or the understanding around representation onstage. I think that gives us a foundation to continue to expand. What does that mean to our larger culture? As we meet the moment and these conversations that are long overdue around around diversity and equity and racism?
Emily is just such a beautiful example. She said, “I’m not passing my torch to anyone, I’m lighting somebody else’s torch.” She has such a singular sense of self, and I feel like that gives me a lot of permission and also this push to say: We’re going to honor the past by fully being ourselves and meeting this moment in the way I think Emily met the moments of her time here. It’s great to not feel beholden to keeping anything a certain way, but rather that spirit of, go forth and take it on in your own way.
Emily continued to direct and write as she ran the theatre. And you directed at the Jungle. I know you said you didn’t want to necessarily impose your stamp on everything that theatre did. But can you talk a bit about how your aesthetic or tastes may shape the McCarter?
I have this deep love of comedy and of developing new comedy, supporting writers. You know, so many of them go to TV and film, for obvious reasons, but that is sometimes the theatre’s loss. I think we all win when comedies like School Girls come into the world; that play has had such a beautiful life across the country. I want us to be a place that fosters that kind of voice. As I said, I take comedy seriously. I also love new musicals. I am really passionate about continuing personally to do the kind of work that brings together music and movement, and I’m personally drawn to a sort of a lyricism. At the end of the day, when I look at a lot of the stuff that I love directing, I’m drawn to visually stunning comedies about loss and renewal. I think that theatre is the place where we are asked the really hard questions of just what it means to be human, where we face our fears, where we talk about the things that are heavy in our world, but leave a little lighter and a little braver because of it. I think that’s going to be really important, especially coming out of this time, that theatre would be a place that challenges us but also allows us to leave with the energy to go forth and try to do good.
I mean, everything I do—and this is why I’m so moved to be in this theatre—is sort of based on the Emily Webb principle of, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” That’s always been the heartbeat under my work: I want theatre to be the place that reminds us that we’re living life while we’re living it.
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