Theater as “An Invitation to Joy”

Sarah Rasmussen. Photo by William Clark.

Sarah Rasmussen Becomes McCarter’s New Artistic Director

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Sarah Rasmussen, named the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune’s “Artist of the Year” in 2018, has succeeded Emily Mann as artistic director of McCarter Theatre as of August 1. She is excited to come to a regional theater in a university setting, having been the head of the University of Texas at Austin’s M.F.A. Directing program.

An inaugural recipient of the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle grant, she also has received the Princess Grace Award, as well as Drama League and Fulbright Scholar fellowships.

“The search committee was impressed with Sarah’s commitments to inclusive artistry and inventive storytelling,” McCarter Board Chair Robert Caruso says in a press release. “McCarter looks forward to how she — partnering with managing director Mike Rosenberg — will expand the theater’s audiences with innovative programming and original content.”

McCarter hosted an online gala in May to honor Mann’s accomplishments in her 30 years as artistic director and resident playwright. In her remarks, Mann welcomed her successor.  “I’m using my torch to light the torches of other people,” Mann said, quoting Gloria Steinem. “May [Rasmussen] enjoy this extraordinary audience, community, and staff as much as I have. Long may she blaze.”

Rasmussen is moved by this metaphor. “Emily has been such a beacon for so many female directors and artistic directors,” she says. “I love that idea of torches being shared with others.”

Rasmussen was raised in Sisseton, South Dakota. “I grew up pretty far from any live performing arts, but my parents thought it was important that we watch Great Performances on PBS,” she says, adding that whenever the family traveled to a larger city, “we saw a live performance.” She remembers being taken to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis by her mother, an English teacher whose curriculum included Shakespeare. After seeing a performance there, Rasmussen knew, “‘That’s what I want to do with my life.’ Early on I knew I wanted to direct, and ultimately run a theater company.”

She founded her own company in Sisseton, at age 14. “I felt bad that there wasn’t any live theater in my hometown, so I thought, ‘How hard can it be? I’ll start doing it!’ she recalls. “I have great memories — not only the love of creating what’s on stage, but doing that as a gift for a community, to bring people together.”

The company gave Rasmussen her earliest experience in directing plays, working with a cast of “kids from ages 4 to 18.”

Rasmussen earned her BA from St. Olaf College. She earned her MFA from the University of California San Diego, whose campus houses the La Jolla Playhouse. At that time, she met La Jolla’s former managing director, Michael Rosenberg, who now fills the same position at McCarter.

“La Jolla has a long history of generating new plays and musicals,” notes Rasmussen. “So that partnership with Mike is something I’m excited about.” She emphatically adds that she admires Mann’s “legacy of creating new pieces at McCarter.”

Bear (“Crab”) and Andrea San Miguel (Ensemble) in Rasmussen’s production of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” for the Jungle Theater. (Photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)

Past Productions; Artistic Style

Given the formative impression that the Guthrie made on Rasmussen, she remains grateful for the opportunity to have directed playwright Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility there, in 2016. “Emily Mann was the first woman ever to direct on the Guthrie stage; she directed The Glass Menagerie there,” Rasmussen observes. “So I knew about Emily as a young aspiring artist. That is so important in our field, to see that example.”

Rasmussen has directed two productions of Two Gentlemen of Verona. The first (2014) was for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), where she formerly was resident director for that company’s Black Swan Lab new work development program. The second (2016) was for the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, where she has been artistic director for the past five years.

“That OSF production was the first ever all-female Shakespeare in the history of OSF, which has been one of our longest-running regional theaters,” Rasmussen says. “That was a fun experience, because it allowed many amazing female actors to play huge roles that they hadn’t gotten to play before. A lot of those actors would say, ‘After that I started getting cast in all these new ways,’ because they were seen in a new light. That was an intergenerational group of women — from high school kids, to Catherine Coulson (who played the Log Lady in Twin Peaks).”

Intergenerational conversations, both onstage and in the audience, are crucial to Rasmussen. “It’s so simple, but it’s also powerful to tell stories with intergenerational characters and scenarios,” she says. “I’m driven by inclusive stories that put intersections of community on stage. Whether it’s intergenerational, or different communities encountering each other, theater is a place where we go to be educated, delighted, and entertained.”

“Another hallmark of my work is gender parity and making sure that we have strong representation of women’s voices; and of Black, indigenous, person of color voices,” Rasmussen adds. “I’m excited that a theme of my conversations with McCarter’s board was a commitment to continuing to make sure that theater is a place where everyone’s stories belong on stage, and everyone belongs in the audience.”

Rasmussen’s artistic style favors a strong visual aesthetic. “I love working with designers,” she says. “I think of directing as a three-dimensional visual art and storytelling medium. I love the timelessness of visual elements. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words.  Visual works leave space for audience members to bring themselves to the poetry of that piece, and find their own resonance within the narrative. One of my favorite writers, Paula Vogel, talks about humor as a way to open our hearts, so that we can go more deeply into questions. I feel the same way about music and the visual arts.”

She also is passionate about directing plays that “ask pressing questions about our time. Whether looking at a classic story through a new lens, or a brand-new play, an important question for me to always ask is, ‘Why right now?’ I’m especially drawn to stories that ask hard questions, but do so with an invitation to joy.”

Rasmussen’s production of “Fly By Night” for the Jungle Theater. Front: James Detmar (Mr. McClam), Joy Dolo (Crabbie), Jim Lichtscheidl (Narrator), Royer Bockus (Daphne), and Joshua James Campbell (Joey Storms). Back: Chris Koza (Harold McClam). (Photo by Dan Norman)

The Jungle Theater

In 2015 Rasmussen was appointed artistic director of the Jungle Theater, a position in which she succeeded that company’s founder, Bain Boehlke. “The Jungle was a really special chapter of my life; I loved my time there,” she enthuses. The company launched both plays and musicals.

Fly by Night (2017) and Ride the Cyclone (2019) are musicals, and I love working on new musicals,” Rasmussen continues. “I love collaborating with music directors, composers, and singers. Musicals add that other dimension where we’re firing on all the cylinders of what a live performance experience can offer.”

In 2018 the Jungle presented Rasmussen’s production of another adaptation by Kate Hamill. “Little Women was a piece that we commissioned; that was a big deal for us, to start commissioning plays,” she says. “That production marked the 150th anniversary of the book, and we felt that was a timely story for right now.”

She regrets to find even more resonance in the novel now, given its portrayal “of a nation really at a very divisive point in its history — and dealing with pandemics.”

Rasmussen notes that before COVID-19 shuttered live venues, the Jungle was “about to open a new play called Redwood, by an amazing younger female Black writer named Britney K. Allen. The play was asking hard, raw questions for our time, about racial equity, but it was doing so with a lot of joy and humor.”

Rasmussen’s production of “Little Women” at Dallas Theater Center. From left are Liz Mikel, Maggie Thompson, Jennie Greenberry, Pearl Rhein, and Lilli Hokama. (Photo by Karen Almond)

From the Jungle to McCarter

In 2019 Mann announced the decision to end her tenure at McCarter. At that time, a press release promised that the board of trustees would “be formalizing a process for identifying the theater’s next artistic director, with a commitment to build on Emily Mann’s storied legacy.”

“I had always been aware of the amazing work happening at McCarter, but I was happy at the Jungle, so I wasn’t looking to move,” Rasmussen recalls. “But the search consultant reached out and asked if I would have a conversation with them, or had anyone else to recommend [to replace Mann].” McCarter announced Rasmussen’s appointment to the position last April.

Having been a professor, Rasmussen is excited to be part of a “legendary regional theater” in a university community. She is energized by her first conversation with the members of the search committee and its co-chairs, Caruso and Dr. Jill Dolan (dean of the college at Princeton University). “We had an animated conversation for about 90 minutes,” She appreciates the extent to which McCarter’s board is “diverse and engaged.”

She says that the most crucial thing she learned from that first conversation is that “there’s so much potential between the University and McCarter.” She has immense respect for Princeton faculty members such as lighting designer Jane Cox, director of the Program in Theater; and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, chair of the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. Rasmussen admires the extent to which Princeton is a “community of research, scholarship, and inquiry.”

Rasmussen’s production of “Ride the Cyclone”  for the Jungle Theater. From left: Shinah Brashears, Josh Zwick, Jordan M. Leggett, Michael Hanna, and Gabrielle Dominique. (Photo by Dan Norman)

Vision for McCarter in an Uncertain Future

“I’m thrilled to be building on the legacy that Emily has nurtured,” Rasmussen says. She acknowledges, “There’s much to be discerned in terms of the next steps we’ll take, especially in this unusual time! But I’d like to see McCarter continue to be a leader in the country in terms of supporting new voices and artists, and developing new stories that not only connect with the McCarter community, but also feed our national conversation, producing pieces that go on to have a life elsewhere.”

Rasmussen sees the COVID-19-enforced pause as an opportunity for theater companies, including McCarter, to consider long-term institutional changes. In the past few years, the theater community has been re-examining its role in the national conversation about racial justice, which has intensified following the death of George Floyd. Rasmussen asks rhetorically, “How can we move forward to create the most welcoming, supportive, and innovative McCarter that we can?”

As to the question of how the live performing arts — and theater in particular — re-emerge in the wake of the pandemic, Rasmussen says, “We all wish that we had the crystal ball! What I can say is that stories will continue to matter to us more than ever. As we’ve seen in this pandemic, people flock to stories on Netflix. But it’s not quite the same — laughing alone in your living room, in front of your own screen. I love the live experience of gathering with people for live art. That’s the reason we do this; we love the spark that happens when people are together, and they’re sharing that energy with performers and other audience members.”

Nevertheless, online platforms and events have been integral in filling the void left for theatergoers by live events. Earlier this year McCarter presented live-streamed events that included a series of conversations between Mann and some of her past and present collaborators. Rasmussen plans to explore ways in which the effectiveness of online avenues can be heightened.

“How do we get the feeling of that shared experience around the campfire, when we’re on our screens?” Rasmussen considers, adding, “We’re going to continue to explore all options for staying engaged with our audiences. I know that McCarter’s continuing to do a lot of education classes, which is great. We’re going to stay creative, and keep sharing things as they come. In light of the pandemic, it’s been so heartening to sense that support for the role that McCarter has played in the community.”

On a personal note, Rasmussen concludes, “My family’s excited to make Princeton home.” She has two children; one is in preschool, the other will be starting kindergarten.

She is grateful for “the warm welcome we’ve already experienced from afar, from the community. So we’re excited to be here!”