As Sarah Rasmussen tells the story, she was really looking forward to her first meeting with Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke. She wanted to direct at the Jungle and penciled in an hour to introduce herself and sell Boehlke on what she might bring to the Minneapolis theater.
Five hours later, Rasmussen was on her way home. Boehlke had shown her every inch of the Jungle, from top to bottom. They had bonded over their rural Midwestern roots and Boehlke was delighted to hear that Rasmussen, like him, had started a theater in her hometown.
He showed her a YouTube video of Ginger Rogers that “Bain found very moving,” she recalls. He also showed her a video of bear cubs being reunited, “which Bain also found very moving.”
This story reaffirms many sweet and endearing things we know about Boehlke, the idiosyncratic genius who spent 50 years as a theatrical force in the Twin Cities. But in her telling, Rasmussen reveals much about herself, too. She was amused, charmed, curious, respectful, gracious and kind — never impatient or dismissive. She wears easily her good manners and small-town politesse.
And she is someone who will endure many things to achieve her goals.
Rasmussen moved into Boehlke’s chair as Jungle artistic director last summer and launches her first season at the theater Friday with a production of Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” featuring an all-female cast — which illustrates another stamp, her inclusiveness.
“I always wanted to run my own theater company and this is the town I wanted to work in,” Rasmussen said during a recent interview. “This is maybe Shakespeare’s first play and this is the beginning of my career, too.”
Kicking off her tenure with Shakespeare takes Rasmussen full circle, she said. She grew up in Sisseton, S.D., a tiny town tucked into the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation near the Minnesota border.
“I grew up in the 1800s,” is how she puts it. Movies were 90 miles away in Fargo. And for live theater, the Twin Cities was a four-hour trip away. She was 14, she said, when she witnessed a Garland Wright production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at the Guthrie. It literally changed her life.
“I remember everything about that day,” she said.
It was her birthday and she and her mother, an English teacher in Sisseton, had gotten rush tickets. She was mesmerized by actors who seemed to be “talking to everyone but also talking directly to me.” The images, the sound, the words, the voices rang in her head.
“I said, ‘I want to figure out how to do that,’ ” Rasmussen said.
She wasted no time, starting her own theater in the basement of her parents’ house. She wrote for the Samuel French catalog for children and when the drama publishing house asked lots of questions about royalties, she inquired of Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. She was sent stacks of plays she could use for free.
Rasmussen called her little troupe the “Environmental Children’s Theatre” because proceeds were given to the Nature Conservancy, “our nonprofit cause of choice.”
The endeavor continued through high school (there was no theater program at Sisseton High) and Rasmussen used the school gymnasium as an auditorium to bus in large groups of children.
“I miss that feeling of having a theater in my home,” she said.
She graduated from St. Olaf College and then entered the MFA directing program at UC-San Diego, studying with Darko Tresnjak, the Tony-winning director of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”
“With Sarah, I saw a level of maturity and confidence in her ability to wield control over people as a director; she was always ahead of the game — razor sharp, the quality of her research,” said Tresnjak. “She was competitive in the best sense of the word, that is, competing with herself.”
The university’s playwriting program also allowed Rasmussen to develop new plays, something that served her well when she went to work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Among other things, she ran the Black Swan Lab for new work. She also proposed a production of “Two Gents” with an all-female cast — the first time that had been done in the festival’s 79-year history. It was staged in 2014, with actor Christiana Clark leading the cast as Proteus, which she also will perform at the Jungle.
“It was brilliant,” said Bill Rauch, OSF’s artistic director. “The play is about male friendship and young men disastrously prizing their friendship with one another over the women they love. Because the play deals with gender politics, to suddenly have all the men’s language in the mouths of women makes you see it differently. It was Sarah’s idea and it was a very savvy choice.”
Rasmussen counts Rauch (“for his vision for what a theater can be to a community”) and Tresnjak among her mentors.
She also mentions playwrights Paula Vogel and Sarah Ruhl as influences and models. Loving a good challenge, she said Vogel writes plays “that are impossible to stage.” Ruhl comes from the same lineage.
In 2010, Rasmussen was Ruhl’s assistant director for the first production of “In the Next Room” at Playwrights Horizons.
“Sarah is wondrously visual and elegant,” said Ruhl. “I think we both love theater that opens the heart with the smallest, most elegant pliers, rather than opening the heart with a chain saw.”
That play was Rasmussen’s entree to the Jungle in 2012, the prize for her long and fruitful meeting with Boehlke.
‘Theater isn’t about theater’
Over afternoon tea, Rasmussen sprinkles her conversation with references to redemption, transcendence, how stories are sacred and powerful.
She prefers theater that is full of forgiveness and she is less interested in work that is cynical or didactic.
It is evident that she still loves her South Dakota roots, mentioning that her great-grandmother was born in a home dug into the side of a hill. Her parents were progressive Lutherans, active in a resettlement program for Southeast Asian immigrants. When reference is made to her sense of spirituality, she talks about the mystic poets Rumi and Hafez.
Rasmussen lives in south Minneapolis with her husband, playwright Josh Tobiessen, and their 18-month-old son, Isak. She loves it that she’s been able to find lots of artists who have families and “make their lives about something other than theater,” even though she admits she sees a lot of theater because “it’s my job.”
“Theater isn’t about theater,” she said. “It’s about everything else. It’s about ‘What is community? How do we invite people in? Can we interrogate how we can be more relevant?’ ”
Michelle Hensley, who has asked Rasmussen to direct twice for Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company, cites her “sense of generosity and openness to include everyone” when leading a production.
“It’s turned out to be a hallmark of her work as a director,” Hensley said. “I think it shows in an energy on the stage when actors are listened to. There’s a palpable joyfulness.”
Tresnjak said the challenge for Rasmussen is what he calls the “pragmatic idealism” an artistic director must practice. And, the ability to wear different hats.
“It’s not necessarily your creation,” he said. “It’s about including others. When I invite someone in, I make it bloody clear it’s about their vision, not mine.”
That will take patience and a willingness to bear some lumps as she learns on the job. For someone who built a theater in her parents’ basement, Rasmussen seems to have the determination to do whatever it takes.
“I really like Sarah’s spirit,” Boehlke said when Rasmussen was appointed his successor. “And I love that she loves the Jungle. She really has a great way about her.”