Jungle Theater artistic director Sarah Rasmussen's first stage was a dining room, her first audience was in the living room and her first curtain was the sliding door that separated them.

"We grew up in a 100-year-old house in Sisseton [S.D.], with the rooms divided by a pocket door, and when we were really little, we figured out it was kind of a neat curtain," recalled her brother Paul. "We'd be in the dining room, putting on a funny little play for my parents and grandparents in the living room. Now, whenever I go to the Jungle, I'm like, 'This is our living room again.' That's the feeling I get in that intimate space."

His big sister, the Star Tribune's Artist of the Year, agrees.

"Doing that as a kid really gave me a voice: 'Oh, this is how I lead a large group of people and wrangle and motivate and talk to them and get them to believe in something,' " she said. "Twenty-five years later, I'm not doing anything differently. It is exactly the same skills."

Those forged-in-childhood skills served Rasmussen well in 2018.

The Jungle earned the largest grant in its 27 years, a renewable gift of $250,000. Shows played to more than 90 percent capacity, with "The Wolves" turning away so many that the Rasmussen-directed drama will return in January at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. Casts were more diverse than ever, in terms of age, race and gender identity, while mixing Jungle veterans with newcomers. And the seven shows this year — the company's busiest ever — included the Jungle's first commissioned work, a new take on "Little Women."

Rasmussen, 40, was turned on to directing by Missoula Children's Theatre, which made an annual visit to Sisseton, a city of about 2,500 whose schools had no theater program. Rasmussen's mother, Jane, who founded the local arts council, actually set up the visit. MCT would roll into town and sign up kids for an intensive week that resulted in a new play each summer.

"It was the best part of the year," she said. "I had so much fun that one week that I thought, 'I want to have this more.' "

Her mom remembers it well: "We were doing this for the community. I had no idea Sarah would be so responsive to it, but I do recall her saying, after a few years, that she felt like a sock that was lost under the bed and couldn't find the other sock because of this lonely feeling that the theater wouldn't be back for a year."

To fill in the gaps, Rasmussen and her crew — including youngest brother Carl — converted library books into plays for the dining room, but later requested scripts from catalogs and Children's Theatre Company, which sent her a bunch and said she could use them for free.

She tried to write her own, too. "I think they were narratively a little wobbly," she said. "They were the kinds of stories kids write: pirates and mermaids. I think I knew early on that I was more interested in directing, the kind of stepping-back aspect of putting it all together."

Paint it black

The venue got larger, as did the productions, when her family moved a few blocks to a newer home.

Rasmussen, a seventh-grader then, recalled surveying the new basement and "telling my dad that if we painted the ceiling black, it would look just like the Guthrie, and then we could do plays down there. My dad was really game. I think at first my mom thought the black ceiling looked like fire damage, but I was like, 'No. Trust me.' "

It did take some trust for her mother, listening to the din downstairs and seeing the extension cords snaking to the neighbors' house for additional power.

"The fire chief had some kids in the play, luckily, because I know he would get concerned that 70 people were in our basement and that Paul had rigged up a kind of lightboard with all these cords," said Jane Rasmussen, whose basement ceiling remains black to this day.

"But I can remember listening to these young kids and being so moved by the power of what I heard. It just struck me: This is really remarkable, what's happening here. It's way more than a bunch of kids playing around."

School officials were so impressed they asked Rasmussen to bring the shows there each year. Those times have stuck with Sara Jaspers, a Minneapolis attorney who appeared in Sisseton shows. After watching a Jungle play, she told Rasmussen it echoed her youthful aesthetic.

"People think that if you're interested in the arts, that's the pathway you're going to choose for the rest of your life, but I think there is value in overlapping those areas," Jaspers said. "Memorizing lines, back in the day, definitely helped me in terms of studying and memorizing case law, and it's definitely helpful in terms of negotiation. I think a lot of times you can bring creativity to a profession, creativity that you got from your time in theater."

In ninth grade, Rasmussen stood with her mom in the rush line at the Guthrie Theater for one of her most formative experiences, a production of Shakespeare's comedy "As You Like It."

"I thought, 'I want to do that. I want to do plays that feel like that.' "

One problem: The entire adult population of Sisseton could have fit into that performance.

"I was very jealous of kids who grew up in the Twin Cities and got to be in CTC plays or whose schools had big musicals,' " Rasmussen said. "I often felt this teenage angst: 'Aaaah, this is the worst place to grow up if you want to be a theater artist.' But, looking back, it was the perfect place to grow up because I had to learn to do it all on my own. That's the way you learn: by doing it.

"By the time I did get some bigger opportunities to direct, it wasn't something I was learning to do in college. It was something I already knew how to do, and it was a matter of doing it in bigger and bigger spaces."

A providential moment

Those spaces have ranged far and wide, but Rasmussen always cast plays in her head imagining the Twin Cities actors she admired.

That was true at St. Olaf College in Northfield, where she studied English and theater. In the Twin Cities, where she worked freelance jobs while substitute teaching during the day. At the University of California, San Diego, where she was mentored by future Tony Award winner Darko Tresnjak. At the Hangar Theater in Ithaca, N.Y., which supplied her first professional directing job in 2005. And at the University of Texas in Austin, where she became head of the MFA directing program.

It was there that a years-ago freelance gig proved providential.

In 2012, the Jungle hired Rasmussen to direct "In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play," a comedy she had previously assistant-directed on Broadway — all the time thinking, "Christina Baldwin would be great in this" (which, eventually, she was).

Touring the theater with founding artistic director Bain Boehlke, Rasmussen asked how he got his start.

"He said, 'I grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota [Warroad] and I started directing plays as a kid.' And he asked how I got my start, and I said, 'I grew up in a small town in South Dakota and I started directing plays as a kid,' " Rasmussen said.

"I had this moment, walking through the basement, where I felt this very, very strong feeling like, 'I'm going to run this theater someday.' "

When that offer came four years later upon Boehlke's retirement, the timing was not ideal.

"I was on a tenure-track job in Austin and the plan was not — you don't start a tenure-track job just to leave," said Rasmussen, who is married to playwright Josh Tobiessen and has two children: Isak, 4, and Nora, 2. "We had just bought a house. I had just had a baby; I think Isak was about 4 or 5 months old.

"It was not a convenient time to change direction, but I'm glad I did. There's a lot that feels full circle because I got my start directing theater in a home, for a community, and in many ways the Jungle feels like a home."

A more inclusive 'home'

Others say she has made it their home, too.

Isabella Star LaBlanc, who was in "The Wolves" and "Little Women," bonded with Rasmussen over geography — LaBlanc's dad is Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota — but said the director showed her that there is room for her in the Twin Cities.

"I had been spending most of my time doing camera work in L.A. because I was under the impression that's where the future was for me, that Native [American] representation in theater was just so minimal, even though theater is my first love," LaBlanc said. "It felt like Sarah was demanding that we make space for me and for people who look like me in this future of American theater that we're creating."

That's been a major shift in Rasmussen's Jungle, which has opened its doors to dozens of artists of color who had not found opportunities there.

"Look, I'm a white lady running a theater," Rasmussen said. "I don't have all the answers, but for me it's the humility of: 'Let's keep taking steps toward being more inclusive and toward gender parity.' "

Another goal is to continue growing salaries for artists.

Peter Rothstein, artistic director of Theater Latté Da, is impressed not just that Rasmussen has shaped a more inclusive Jungle and made smart, local hires to help her do it, but also that she has retained audiences.

"People were concerned about: What does the Jungle look like, post-Bain Boehlke? He had a singular aesthetic and was an extraordinary artist with a keen sensibility, so how does someone inherit that and shape it?" Rothstein said. "I have so much respect for Sarah. She redirected the theater in a way that feels authentic to her, and the work shines because of that."

Not that the path has been completely smooth.

Rasmussen has heard her work is "too female-centric," but insists on gender parity on stage because that's what the world looks like, even if audiences aren't yet used to it.

She also cites "The Nether," a drama about a pedophile she chose for her first season, as work that divided audiences but led to years' worth of conversations: "I always tell people I'm glad they're passionate about sharing their thoughts. The point of art is not that you like everything, so it's totally valid not to. But it's interesting to start that conversation about why we chose a play. That feels good to me."

She knows the Jungle's search committee wondered whether audiences would be as enthusiastic about new work as Rasmussen is, so she's thrilled the year's biggest hits were new plays — plays that she said shined because so many hands polished them.

"A big part of why this is all working is that I get to work with loyal, intrepid, kind, talented people," she said. "It's nice when people say, 'Oh, you're really collaborative.' I think, 'Cool, but I'm not doing it to be nice.' I'm doing it to create better art, because it absolutely is better when you have all of the best ideas."

That's why the director who said she "spent so much of my childhood thinking, 'I want so badly to be part of this,' but not knowing how to access it" is proud the Jungle has created leadership opportunities for women, using that $250,000 grant to add Baldwin and Sheena Janson Kelley to the staff.

That's also why, when informed she's our Artist of the Year, Rasmussen's brain went to preteen Sarah, reading the Star Tribune on her stomach on her grandparents' living room floor and wondering whether she'd ever get to create the kind of art she read about.

"I used to think, 'I want to know what's going on in the world, in case I ever leave here,' " recalled Rasmussen, who said she still feels a bit like an outsider.

"That's what is really moving to me. It can be intimidating, coming from a small town and going to the big city and feeling like, 'Gosh, everyone knows things I don't know.' I hope some girl, in some small town, will open this Variety section and think, 'Hey, I could find my path to doing art, too.' "