On the eve of ‘The Wickhams,’ a talk with the Jungle’s Sarah Rasmussen

photo of sarah rasmussen
Photo by William Clark
Sarah Rasmussen

Sarah Rasmussen was named artistic director of the Jungle Theater in March 2015. In February 2016, she made her directorial debut as AD with Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” The cast was all women, except for a dog. The set was pink and spare.

A new era at the Jungle had begun.

In the three years and change since Rasmussen arrived, the Jungle has become noticeably and jubilantly more diverse. There are more women acting in and directing more plays written by women than at any point in the theater’s history – make that most theaters’ histories. “Bars and Measures” (2016) was the first play at the Jungle written by a black playwright (Idris Goodwin). It had a black director (Marion McClinton), lead actors (Ansa Akyea and Darius Dotch) and music director (Justin Ellington).

In October 2017, the Jungle launched JungleWrites, a playwriting program for “young women+.” It commissioned its first play, Kate Hamill’s “Little Women.” In February 2018, Rasmussen won a $250,000 grant from the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle. It will likely be re-upped in 2019 and 2020, for a total of $750,000. June brought a 50/50 Applause Award from the International Centre for Women Playwrights for gender equity.

Meanwhile, the 2017 season played to 93 percent capacity. The final figures for 2018 are expected to top that. Plus the Jungle now has a working turntable on its stage, and the building’s roof has been repaired. “The roof was very Dickensian,” Rasmussen said. “Water was dripping on people’s desks.”

The Jungle’s second-ever holiday play, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley,” will open Saturday, Dec. 1. Co-commissioned with the Bay Area’s Marin Theatre Company, written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, directed by Christina Baldwin, it’s a parallel tale to 2017’s “Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley,” the Jungle’s first-ever holiday play.

In an interview earlier this month in the Jungle’s lobby, which looks and feels like a cozy living room, Rasmussen shared her thoughts on many things.

On “The Wickhams”

Christina [Baldwin] has coined a great word for this play – “sidequel.” It’s not a sequel to “Miss Bennett.” It’s actually an “Upstairs, Downstairs” version – what’s happening with the servants, what’s happening behind the scenes with Lydia and Wickham as the family is gathering upstairs.

Last year in “Miss Bennett,” I loved what [actress] Kelsey Didion did with Lydia. I thought she was delightful, and also there were some interesting inklings of maturation in that character. I think what’s interesting to the writers, Lauren and Margot, is this idea of allowing characters, especially women, to evolve. Lydia’s story, up to this point, is some poor choices and some silliness. But what if Lydia was allowed to grow up? What would she do differently? How would her relationship with her family change?

On casting James Rodriguez, who has often played thugs and bad guys, as romantic hero Mr. Darcy

He’s such a dear-hearted, sweet, kind, very intelligent man. He just is Darcy to us. I loved him in “Little Women,” too. I guess I like casting against type. Or maybe because I’m new, I don’t know how everyone’s always been cast. It’s fun to hear from actors, “I’m doing stuff here that I wouldn’t normally do.” Joy Dolo was never in a musical before “Fly by Night.” There’s risk in that, but that’s also where the energy comes from – someone trying something new.

On hiring women directors

It’s been really great to see Christina directing. Women are actively looking for ways to have more agency and more opportunity, to use their skills and continue in their careers. We want to create those opportunities.

Not just in our fields, but in other fields, men are hired on their potential and women are hired on their experience. If we want to see more women directors, more women leaders, somebody’s got to take that chance and say, “I’m going to give you your first job.” People do that with men all the time.

Shá Cage is going to direct “School Girls: Or the African Mean Girls Play” [in March]. When we reach out to women like Christina and Shá, I always think it’s important to say, “Not only do I think you’re ready for this, but we’re going to be here to support you.” It’s one thing to give someone an opportunity, but you also need to be there to champion them.

On the Jungle’s size (148 seats), and remounting “The Wolves” at the Southern in January and February

Our season is full here. Because we don’t have our own scene shop, we have to build on our stage, so our space is in use every second of the year. We’re either putting in the next show or we’re running a show.

“The Wolves” ran really long waitlists during the first run [in April 2018]. In the final days, a young woman in high school came up to me and said, “I love this so much I’m going to bring six of my friends back to see it later this week.” I had to tell her she couldn’t.

We’re kind of busting out of our seams here. We could have sold more seats throughout last year. We put so much care and love into each of these shows, and it’s hard when people want to see them and can’t. So it feels like an exciting time to have a conversation about what that means. Does it mean that sometimes we bring things to another space? Does it mean we try to figure out a way to add a few more seats?

I love our space. I love the intimacy of it. I would never want to abandon that. I’m really glad I have the problem of having a theater that sometimes feels a little too small, rather than one that feels way too big.

photo of actors on stage
Photo by Rich Ryan
An early look at “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley,” which opens Saturday, Dec. 1.
On changes she has made since arriving in 2015

I have changed things. But the goal wasn’t to change everything. The goal was to continue something, but with an open mind about who hadn’t gotten to participate in it.

I’m really proud of casts with people like Wendy Lehr and Terry Hempleman. This has been a home for them over the years. It’s great to have Angie [Angela Timberman] back in “The Wickhams.”

I love the intergenerational thing of folks that have built careers here mixed in with young folks. The dressing room for “Little Women” made me so happy, because there’s Wendy [Lehr] and Christina [Baldwin], these legends, and then there’s Megan Burns and Isabella Star LaBlanc, amazing young talent.

Wendy gave me the biggest hug after that show closed. She was like, “I loved being part of this! I loved these young people.” And the young people are giving me hugs and saying, “Oh my gosh, Wendy!” More and more, in our fractured, angry world, theater is a place where we can bring diverse groups of people together to tell a story.

On losing some audience members

I know I can’t be everything to everyone. For some people, this wasn’t for them. I mourn that, in a way, but that’s OK. One has to have a vision and stay true to that. But I’m really heartened that so many of our subscribers and donors have stayed with us. They express a feeling of loving the past and loving now, that those things don’t have to be in competition, that one can celebrate what came before and also be excited about what’s happening now and in the future.

On commissioning new work

My background is in working with writers and in play development. To me, it’s really exciting that we’re quickly becoming leaders in creating the work and how we’re creating it. What are we doing here, if we’re not trying to innovate and lift up this community, this talent and this audience?

Minneapolis is still a well-kept secret. People have sort of heard of us, and they know there’s a good arts scene here, but I want to continue to shine a spotlight on Minneapolis and say, “There’s a great arts scene here, and this is a place where things can begin.”

Audiences here will see the first versions of plays that will go on to be performed all over the country. These actors [at the Jungle] will always have their fingerprints on these characters. That’s a subtle thing, but it ups the bar for everyone.

When plays get published, on the title page it always says where they were first performed and what that first cast was. I think that’s my own kind of quiet, happiest acknowledgment in my career – that plays exist in the world that say, “This was premiered at the Jungle, and these people worked on it.”

We have some feelers out for more commissions, and we’re getting close on those.

On the importance of the BOLD grant to the Jungle

It’s allowed us to have conversations about the future. With not-for-profits, you’re always on the razor’s edge, even when it’s going really well. Even when we’re sold out, we only have 148 seats, and we don’t want to raise ticket prices. Our income is capped at a certain level, and that dictates a lot of the rest.

People don’t understand that. They really don’t. We’re like a little store, and everything’s handmade, and we want to pay people well. The BOLD grant has allowed us the luxury of time and space to create new opportunities for some new folks in our community. To say, “Let’s sit down and talk about what if.” We actually have the resources to start that conversation or to jumpstart some commissioning.

And I’m careful to say that we still need our donors. We still need our philanthropy. All of that. But the grant gives us a little wind at our back to dream bigger.

On how she rates her own performance so far

I think, if I’m being honest, I’ve exceeded a lot of my own expectations. That doesn’t mean that I feel done. I don’t think I would ever feel complacent or done, but if you would have told me three years ago that we’d be launching world premieres into the world, that we’d be selling at a really high capacity, that we’d have opportunities like this BOLD grant to be in conversation with other leaders in the field … I’m really proud of where we’ve gotten, and that feels like a big vote of encouragement to keep going.

When asked, “What feels important to you now?”

Plays that encourage the idea of connection. We’re barraged by information out in the world, and it feels very sacred and very radical to take time to turn off our phones, put them away and watch a story together. Stories help us feel connected to each other.

Humor is really important. Doing plays that have humor in them is a public service right now. Some interesting studies show that when people go see something and they laugh and feel connected to other humans, they’re more apt to go out and do something positive to change the world than if they’re hit over the head with a message that the world is a terrible place.

I know there are very important plays that remind us that the world is a terrible place. But I feel like I’m pretty aware of that. I’m getting that message loud and clear in my everyday life. And I really crave theater that reminds us what we have in common, that surprises us, that delights us, that talks about difficult issues, but through something that feels imaginative and hopefully like an invitation to talk rather than an attack of shutting people down.

“Entertain” is not a dirty word. Sometimes in our field there’s a feeling that if it’s important, it won’t be fun or it won’t be enjoyable. And I think that’s deadly for our field, frankly. So I’m interested in doing things that are substantive, but it’s also OK to have fun.

As Rumi said, “There are so many ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

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“The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” opens Dec. 1 at the Jungle. FMI and tickets ($45-50). Closes Dec. 30.

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