Patrons at a northeast Minneapolis coffee shop gave a wide berth to the raven-haired woman who babbled to herself with a distant look in her eyes on a recent rainy morning.
Not to worry. Actor and theater impresario Sara Marsh was just rehearsing her latest role.
She plays a schizophrenic daughter in “And So It Goes,” a dark comedy about the financial, emotional and psychic costs of illness on a family already chastened by crisis.
Marsh was rehearsing in the name of efficiency — she is not only co-star of the show, but also artistic director of Dark & Stormy Productions, which is opening the play this week. Her docket was full, with press interviews to promote the production, grant applications to keep her company afloat, and voice-over work to support her own career.
The edgy role suits her sensibility, and also defines the aesthetic of Dark & Stormy.
“I like that we get to visit scary places in the theater, which becomes a safe space for us to confront the things that frighten us,” said Marsh, cradling her script. “The shows we’ve done, whether dealing with rape or mental illness or murder — those are things that I’m drawn to not because I live them, but because I haven’t and I want to know.”
A 5-foot-3 dynamo who holds an interviewer with her eyes, Marsh has taken the Twin Cities by storm with the company she founded four years ago. Dark & Stormy’s noteworthy productions include William Mastrosimone’s “Extremities,” David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” and Harold Pinter’s “The Hothouse,” all staged in unusual spaces where audiences are never more than a few feet from the actors.
The works have garnered strong reviews and put the company’s name on the lips of tastemakers. Dark & Stormy recently became a full professional member of the Actors’ Equity union, and City Pages just named it the best theater in the Twin Cities.
“Can you think of another person who has started a theater, and within five years made it into the best-of rankings while supplying Equity contracts?” asked Sally Wingert, the Guthrie stalwart who plays Marsh’s mother in “And So It Goes.”
“The fact that she’s in those conversations is a credit to her intensity, focus and dynamism.”
To the stage born?
Marsh, the first of two children born to a father who owned a construction company and a mother who was an interior designer, seemed destined for the performing arts, just not theater. She started taking piano lessons early, even competing at age 5 at Northrop auditorium.
But then, at 10, she took a theater class at Breck School under noted teacher Tom Hegg. The class wrote and performed its own play.
“I can’t even remember much about the play, only the feeling it gave me,” she said. “I was hooked. There’s nothing that makes me feel more present, more focused and alive.”
Surprisingly, Marsh would enroll at the University of Minnesota in medieval European studies. But during her freshman year in 1999, she got cast in the indie film “Sugar and Spice,” a Minnesota-shot action comedy about a group of cheerleaders conspiring to commit a robbery. Marsh played a nerdy character who has misgivings about the robbery scheme.
She subsequently moved to California to pursue a film career, but came back to finish her degree in 2006. “I was on a 10-year plan,” she joked.
Marsh did the Hollywood grind — a few small film roles, a TV remake of “Bonanza” that went nowhere — and she still has an agent there, but missed working in theater.
She founded Dark & Stormy in 2012 with the mission of bringing young people into the theater by offering unconventional fare in unusual spaces. “Speed-the-Plow” was staged in a tight conference room in a Minneapolis office building while “The Hothouse” was staged in a 7,000-square-foot atrium in the former Grain Belt brewery.
The actor’s life
Most theaters are founded, and run, by directors. Marsh is one of a handful of actors to launch a company in the Twin Cities. There’s always a suspicion such companies are self-serving, especially if the founder is a former ingénue who is aging out of such roles.
”She may have started the theater in part because she wanted to be onstage more, but it’s certainly larger than anyone’s vanity project,” said Wingert. “Truth be told, [onstage] she’s a terrific and very giving scene partner.”
Marsh has slayed her varied roles.
In “Extremities,” Marsh played a would-be sex assault victim who turns the tables on her assailant. In “Hothouse,” she was a femme fatale. And now in “And So It Goes” she gets into the cracks of mental illness as her character’s condition sucks a family into a black hole.
“I’ve always been attracted to funny, edgy work,” she said. “It gives me an outlet for any penchant for drama that I might have in real life. And because most of the stuff I like is dark, the comedy sugars the pill.”
The theater roles often contrast with the peppy characters she has played onscreen, with the notable exception of Patrick Coyle’s 2015 Twin Cities-shot film “The Public Domain,” in which she played a high-strung actress turned casting agent.
Working it out
Dark & Stormy isn’t a living for her yet. Most of its $100,000-plus budget goes into its productions, for which she is paid as an actor. Her administrative work amounts to less than gas money — $200 to $300 a year.
“My parents are entrepreneurs, so I know that it takes five years before you can pay yourself, if you’re lucky,” she said. “But our business model is to take care of our actors and creative team, and to pay not just wages but health and pension benefits.”
Marsh has a thriving voice-over career. She’s sold products for General Mills and Wal-Mart, among others. But theater is the fountainhead for her, even as she’s learning how to run a company on the fly.
Marsh does a good job of negotiating her dual roles as theater leader and actor, said director Ben McGovern, who has staged four of the company’s eight shows.
“She leaves ‘The Boss’ at the door of the rehearsal room, and gets into sandbox mode to play,” he said.
McGovern describes her as “dogged, persistent and determined — she doesn’t take no for an answer. Paradoxically, the funny thing about Sara is that every time I come up with some crazy idea for her, her first reaction is to say no. Then, almost immediately, she turns around and say, ‘Let’s think about it.’ ”
One of those ideas was to put headsets on the audience for the 2014 production of “Hothouse,” staged in a yawning space. The creative team put mics on the actors so the production had an epic scale but intimate feel.
“Those headsets were brilliant — I could hear [actor] Robert Dorfman’s every murderous whisper,” said Frances Wilkinson, a Twin Cities-based theater lover and producer who’s backing “And So It Goes.”
“That speaks to the things I like about Sara, which are her unusual but sexy business model, her taste and her spunk. She’s fierce, as an actor and a theater founder, and she brings a lovely energy to the theater community.”