Seated together on a leather sofa at Wilde Cafe in Minneapolis, the two women looked like talk-show hosts.
“Maybe we should do a talk show,” said Sarah Rasmussen.
“Definitely,” said Sarah Bellamy.
Both 38 with small children at home, the two dynamos are at the forefront of a cadre of leaders transforming theater in the Twin Cities — and the nation, by example, in a field that remains dominated by men.
Bellamy became sole artistic director of St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre in January after sharing the job for three years with her father, Lou, legendary founder of the African-American company that gave August Wilson his start. Rasmussen took over the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis two years ago from founding artistic director Bain Boehlke, who built the troupe into a jewel box renowned for its craft.
Although both women confess to being introverts thrust into public roles, we brought them together for a joint interview that became — as we had hoped — a warm conversation about their shared journeys and joys.
Q: What was your eureka moment — your theater origin story?
Bellamy: So, I’m 13 or 14, and acting in August Wilson’s “Fences” with my dad, who was playing Troy. I played his daughter. Every night, I peeked through the fence holes from backstage, watching the audience. And every night, I saw these streaks of white cutting up the darkness. It took me a while to figure out that it was Kleenexes and handkerchiefs, and people needing to dry their eyes. And I was like, “Whoa, that is power.”
You can orchestrate emotion. You can call people to witness something together. Storytellers have tremendous power. How we represent people onstage can make them more or less safe in the world, can determine how much access they have, and how much we care — or don’t — about them.
Rasmussen: As a kid, all I wanted was to be in this [theater] world. I never believed I would get a chance, though, because I grew up in a town of 2,000, in very rural South Dakota. A lot of my experience has been that of the outsider, looking in at things that are compelling and beautiful. That feeling of being outside something one feels drawn to informs the stories I choose, the way I cast actors and the way I think about audience.
Theater at times can feel insider-y, like you have to know a certain culture to be part of it. But it’s this world of hospitality, of inviting people in. That’s one of my favorite things as a director — to work with actors in a way that gives someone the chance to do something they haven’t done before. That, to me, offers opportunities for magic.
Q: What is it like, succeeding founders who put their stamp on their theaters for 40 years and 25, respectively?
Bellamy: The co-artistic directorship worked well for us. It was pretty seamless. One of the things I’ve noticed with theaters of color across the country is that sons and daughters, who grew up in these theaters, are stepping into these roles. It’s the work of honoring a family legacy. It’s very important that Lou continues to direct at Penumbra. [He’s actually directing the season opener, “Wedding Band.”] It’s also important that we bring in different directors.
Rasmussen: We’ve had an opposite journey at the Jungle, and it was a gift, really. We had a couple of hours of overlap. He said: Here’s the keys, run it. Then he was gone. He’s made himself available when we need him. Bain made theater he was passionate about. I’m giving myself permission to say it’s a new day. I’m not trying to answer to anyone other than my own artistic compass.
Q: What’s been the most surprising thing about stepping into these roles?
Bellamy: I feel like the job is bigger and more focused than I anticipated. It’s a balancing act, trying to find your own voice as you hone an artistic style that maintains the legacy of the organization but also adds your outlook, vision and personality.
Rasmussen: I thought there would be a lot more comparing of me to Bain, but I’ve been energized by the response of our patrons, donors, community. We’ve held to the core values of amazing actors, exquisite design and the feeling in the space.
Q: Where do you want your theaters to go?
Rasmussen: I’m amazed that 70 percent of audience members across the country are women. And yet directors and playwrights are less than 30 percent. I feel energized about moving that needle. This season at the Jungle, all of our directors are women and 50 percent of our playwrights are female.
In a million small ways, I’m going to bring my experience as a female artist, as a parent, to my desk every day. There are myths we hear that unknown titles don’t sell, that titles by female playwrights don’t sell. I’m on fire right now. Women do sell at the box office. And our audiences are so engaged. I sometimes have to take a step back and say, omigod!
Bellamy: My vision for Penumbra is that it continues to be a space for dynamic activism. I want it to be entertaining and engaging for our audiences, but if they want more, there’s more. Last November when we had “Jitney” up [August Wilson’s drama about a taxi stand], we provided cabs for people to go to the polls. It’s tremendously important that Penumbra does well so people understand the value that theaters of color add to the landscape.
When you’re social-justice-motivated, it’s important to create structures that affirm you, and have time dedicated to self-care. So I’m grateful to be a parent.
Rasmussen: I love being a parent. It gives me permission to bring all of me to work. When I’m at work, I’m all there. When I’m with my kids, I’m just jumping around and playing.
Q: Just by being who you are, you reshape the idea of what it means to be a theater leader.
Rasmussen: Even though it’s about looking with empathy into people’s lives, theater has historically been an inhumane field. For years I was looking for the role models. How does a woman who wants to have kids but also is very ambitious put the pieces together? I suddenly realized: Oh, I’m the person I’ve been looking for. I don’t have that example of what it’s like to be an artistic director with two young kids who’s actively directing and working late hours. So I’m gonna step into that space and hopefully someone else watching me can see an imperfect example of someone doing it day by day.
Bellamy: In theaters of color, child care was the family, the actors, the staff. I’m running a company full of my uncles and aunties. It’s important to honor them.
Rasmussen: Sarah, I love your stories of growing up in the theater. I’m so jealous of that. That I could even dream this was something I didn’t discover until my 20s. I’m jealous of my son, who’s almost 3. He fell in love with reading books and he’s having all these discoveries about musicals.
Q: Michelle Hensley, longtime director of Ten Thousand Things Theater, talks about these issues. Her company rehearses from 10 to 3 on weekdays to make it easier on working parents.
Bellamy: The systems in place were made by people, and people can change those systems. People tend to mentor people who remind them of themselves. Our field hasn’t done a great job of mentoring younger women.
Rasmussen: I’d never been an artistic director, so I wondered: Will it feel different? But it feels just like how I go into rehearsal with a group of actors. You create a culture that supports them, that honors them, that gives them a space to take a risk because that’s where things are most alive. That’s what I’m doing on a larger scale now.
Q: Are there surprising or, I dare say, gender-related drawbacks?
Rasmussen: My art identity includes my gender but is not limited to that. What’s it like to be a woman director? I get that question a lot.
Q: Is it a sexist question?
Rasmussen: I don’t judge the question. That’s as unique as anybody’s journey in the world.
Bellamy: The part about being an artistic director I really love is dreaming and seeing your dreams realized.
Rasmussen: I love what you said, Sarah, about the joy in dreaming: “Omigod, it’s actually happening. We dreamt this up.”
Q: What has surprised you the most in your work?
Bellamy: I’m a creative person, an educator, so it makes sense to be an artistic director. But I didn’t realize I was an organizer, a strategic thinker, a critic of things that cannot go unremarked. I’m finding historically entrenched problems in philanthropy. I’m a coalition builder. I’m learning that I have to be flexible. I love learning and being a student.
Q: You mentioned self-care. What do you do to relax and recharge?
Bellamy: In the summer, I get outside. I play with my boy. I love to garden and to cook and to hunt. I’ve been encouraging myself to write more.
Rasmussen: What do you write?
Bellamy: Right now, journaling. But short stories and plays. The other thing I need is having space to think. There’s always more work to do.
Rasmussen: A lot of my job is being in rehearsal. So, when I go home, I shift gears. My kids make me feel more fearless in part because I don’t have time to be afraid.
Next up for Bellamy
“Wedding Band”: Her season opener is a story of interracial romance. (Oct. 17-Nov. 12, $15-$40, at Penumbra in St. Paul.)
Next up for Rasmussen
“The Nether”: A sci-fi thriller written and directed by women. (Sept. 13-Oct. 15, $15-$45, at the Jungle in Mpls.)