Becca Hart's first audition for Jungle Theater was in director Christina Baldwin's living room for an audience of two: Baldwin and her dog.
That was two years ago, and since then, Hart has appeared in four Jungle shows, three this year: the winter remount of "The Wolves," "Small Mouth Sounds" this summer and quirky "Ride the Cyclone," which opens Saturday. It features Hart, who self-identifies as "weird," in her weirdest role yet, a part toy/part human-ish creature who guides young people through a kind of purgatory after they die in a roller coaster accident. Oh, it's a musical.
Hart describes "Ride the Cyclone" as combining catchy songs with elements of "Little Shop of Horrors," Tim Burton movies and "Our Town." She and her director both respond to its odd blend.
"Becca has a curious, joyful spirit about her, and not a big ego. It can be intimidating to start working with really professional casts when you are young, but I think she has incredible maturity," said Jungle artistic director (and "Cyclone" helmer) Sarah Rasmussen.
The living room audition for "Miss Bennet" was pivotal for Hart, 27, a 2014 graduate of St. Olaf College with a degree in English. She had done several shows with night rehearsals, including "The Arsonists" at Frank Theatre and "Urinetown" at Lyric Arts. But when she earned the small part at the Jungle, she decided to find a flexible day job that would allow her to accept projects that, like "Bennet," rehearsed during the day (now, her "amazing side hustle" is at Beaver's Pond Press, helping writers prepare work for publication).
Based on "Bennet," Hart was invited to audition for Rasmussen's first production of "The Wolves" in 2018 and has worked often at the Jungle ever since, in between playing the title role in Artistry's "Mary Poppins" and Cinderella in Shoot the Glass' "Into the Woods" (next up: Artistry's "The Bridges of Madison County"). She's a fan of the Jungle's intimate, 150-seat theater.
"It feels so prestigious, but it also feels like a tiny little, nuanced space where the tiniest thing you do, the audience will be able to see. So it allows you to drop in juicy little personal moments," Hart said. "I got to see 'School Girls' this spring and, being in the audience, it's almost as if there are times when you see something and you're not even sure you're supposed to see it. It feels so private."
That suits the way she likes to work. Hart gives directors a "smorgasbord" of bold choices and relies on them to help decide which of those Jell-O salads and casseroles to keep.
"I did a show with Jay Albright once. He would say a line, then say it in three different ways, to hear it in his own storytelling ear. His scene partner would wait while Jay found a rhythm he liked. It was amazing. I'll try a few things on the spot sometimes, but mostly it's getting to the end of it one time and realizing, 'Oh, I wanted to make that moment shine more' and going back to try it," Hart said.
"That's something I really admire about Becca," Rasmussen said. "She'll make big choices, but you can say, 'Thank you so much for trying that. Now, we're going to take it in a totally different direction,' and she'll say, 'OK. Great!' "
"I love it when a director is, like, 'Yes' to that, 'Maybe not' to this," Hart said. "What's frustrating is if I present a lot of options and get nothing. On one hand, they didn't say I was doing anything wrong, but on the other hand, I have no sense of what they want the show to be."
Hart wanted lots of help with "Ride the Cyclone," because her character — she says she's akin to a marionette, made out of human parts, who also sings in an operatic soprano — is so unusual.
"I came into rehearsals, expecting to play her like a doll, something that had no connection to humanity," Hart said. "But Sarah was really smart and said, 'This is a character the audience has to be wary of but also intrigued by.' She's encouraging me to play her more like a human being dragged toward a grave, rather than someone who's already in one. It's about finding the humanity in a monster."
Since she was in second grade (she grew up in Oklahoma, but her parents are from the Twin Cities, where she moved after graduating from St. Olaf), Hart also has been a cartoonist, a skill that will be on display in scenic elements of "Ride the Cyclone."
"There was a minute where my goal was to be a Disney animator, but then I realized I didn't want to be a Disney animator now; I wanted to be a Disney animator in the 1940s, when it was all hand-drawn," said Hart, who illustrates books, gives cartoons as gifts to fellow artists and creates cartoon reviews for the Minnesota Playlist website.
Hart thinks cartooning informs acting. Both require thinking about how characters look, move and speak.
"I'll think, 'If I were looking at this character on a page, what are their physical traits? Where do they live?' I'll start with those broad strokes," Hart said.
In some ways, Hart's approach to acting began in 11th grade, when a school nurse informed her she was a man's average height (she's 5 feet, 8 inches tall).
"With that in mind, I think I never approached theater with the idea that I'd get cast as the ingénue or in the 'pretty role.' I thought, 'I'm tall, so I'll have to go for the character roles,' and I approached that from a physical, exploratory, playful sense," Hart said. "I'm bored whenever I see a female actor make choices that are just about being the pretty thing on stage. And, of course, that's conditioned, because many women have been taught, 'Play the role like this and you'll get cast in these roles.' "
Hart insists she likes plenty of stuff that isn't as "spooky and strange" as "Cyclone." But she's happy to follow her own offbeat instincts, in part because "you never know what the weird ones are going to do next."
Which is true, to a point. But, if recent history is any guide, there's a decent chance they're going to do it on the Jungle Theater stage.