Sarah Rasmussen had not been at Jungle Theater long when the walls came down, literally and figuratively.
The literal one was in the high-ceilinged lobby, plastered with headshots of top performers who worked at the Jungle since Bain Boehlke founded it in 1991, people such as Claudia Wilkens, J.C. Cutler and Barbara Kingsley. A glaring exception was artists of color, who rarely found work there (James Craven, in “Driving Miss Daisy,” is one who did). And, although it wasn’t evident from the lobby display, the Jungle also had employed a grand total of two female directors (Rasmussen and Casey Stangl) in its 25-year history.
Cut to the first play of Rasmussen’s tenure. Dude-centric title be damned, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” was directed by a woman (Rasmussen), featured an all-female cast with a six-decade age span and likely included more artists of color in one show than had appeared in the previous 25 years combined.
Rasmussen is often at the helm, but the Jungle also nurtures other female directors. This season is entirely directed by women. A champion of new work and of female playwrights, Rasmussen also started JungleWrites, a playwriting program for girls.
None of this inclusivity would matter if the work weren’t good. Rasmussen brought a playful spirit to the musical “Fly by Night,” and a homespun magic to her direction of husband Josh Tobiessen’s “Lone Star Spirits.” Audiences responded, with the season playing to more than 92 percent of capacity. And next year’s offerings, including the acclaimed (all-female) “The Wolves” and the provocative “Hand to God,” hold plenty of promise.
Speaking of promises, Rasmussen’s work at the Jungle puts her money where her mouth was when she told the Star Tribune’s Graydon Royce, shortly after taking the job in 2016: “Theater isn’t about theater. It’s about everything else. It’s about, ‘What is community? How do we invite people in?’ ”
In other words, the wall is down at the Jungle. And the welcome mat is out.