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INTERVIEW: Sarah Rasmussen on the Jungle Theater’s New Season

A promotional image for the Jungle Theater’s upcoming production of Ishmael.

It’s been several winters – and, some would say right now, not enough summers – since the Jungle Theater announced the appointment of Sarah Rasmussen as its new artistic director in March 2015. At the time, the native of Sisseton, South Dakota teaching at the University of Texas-Austin. She was nevertheless no stranger to Twin Cities theatre audiences, having directed In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play at the Jungle in 2012. Since then, Rasmussen has not only taken up the reins at the Jungle, but also continued to direct around town (see the recent Sense and Sensibility at the Guthrie) and participate in thought leadership at the state level.

Rasmussen spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about the Jungle Theater’s ambitious 2018 season, which kicks off this weekend with Leo Geter’s Ishmael, and on changes to the company’s season planning that kick in this fall.

The Jungle is doing three local premieres of pieces that were staged in New York City over the last few years. The Wolves is even still playing in NYC, despite some difficulties with the snow bomb cyclone! How did you first encounter these three works – onstage, through word of mouth, by reading the script, etc?

Plays make it on to our season in so many different ways.  I worked almost exclusively in new work development for years – so I have longtime relationships with playwrights and agents.  We are ramping up more of our own commissioning, which is exciting too!

I first encountered The Wolves as a professor at the University of Texas–Austin. Sarah Delappe applied to our graduate writing program with that play. Needless to say, we were all blown away. Not everyone gets shortlisted for the Pulitzer off of their grad application play!

The Jungle Theater’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Jungle Associate Artist Katherine Pardue worked on the early development [of The Wolves], and we were able to make the case for why the Jungle should get an area premiere [as a result]. The Wolves just fits so well with the Jungle’s vision to represent a diverse range of women onstage.

[As far as selecting Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill is concerned], Thomasina Petrus has always wanted to work on Lady Day with jazz theater legend Marion McClinton. It sounded so exciting to turn the Jungle into an intimate jazz club, especially with Joel Sass designing.

Hand to God is one of those plays that so many of our audience members asked for. It’s going to be a great late summer, irreverent romp. I am thrilled that Christina Baldwin will be at the helm, after our wonderful experience with her on Miss Bennett: Chrimstas at Pemberley.

You’re bringing in Jonatha Brooke to perform her solo show My Mother Has 4 Noses. Aside from this autobiographical play, Brooke is best-known as a folk-rock musician. Are there going to be any separate musical tie-ins?

This is a play that is filled with Jonatha’s original music. She has been a favorite singer/songwriter of mine for years. I can’t believe our luck that she moved to Minneapolis. This is such a moving, funny, beautiful show!

We will be selling Jonatha’s album.  Since the show is basically a concert experience, we aren’t doing other concerts with her, but she plays the Dakota a lot.

You’re not directing very many of the Jungle’s shows in this shortened season. Is there any particular reason for this – external directing engagements, growing obligations as the Artistic Director, or happenstance?

I direct two shows every 12-month cycle. This season [since it is shorter] fits five projects into eight months.

Based on recent announcements, it looks like the Jungle Theater is moving away from its calendar year-based scheduling to a more traditional fall/September start to the season. Why and why now?

So many reasons!  Grant cycles run on that calendar. Almost every other theater does as well, so it makes a lot more sense on an artistic side to be in rhythm with other artists and producers.

What is the application process like for the new JungleWrites program?

It’s an open application process, but we do a lot of work to contact local teachers to make sure we are on the radar of students who might be a good fit.  We have an amazing, diverse cohort of young women. We are so excited to grow this program. Information is on our website:

Now that you’ve been on the job for a while…how is the Jungle Theater doing as a building and an organization? What are your priorities besides keeping the lights on and audiences coming?

We’ve just wrapped up an incredible season – we played to 92% capacity. We have so many big dreams – I dream of classroom space onsite, etc…but in the meantime, I’m really focused on sharing plays that delight and entertain and challenge our audiences.

There are always more than five plays a year that I love, and so many writers I want to be in the room with, so I [also] keep thinking of how we can add more to the season. I love the talent in Minneapolis, and can’t wait to keep scheming up projects. I’m definitely in my dream job right now.

I heard from several staff members that last season’s The Nether was a tricky show to promote, but in the end there were many shows that sold out. How did audiences respond to this thought-provoking show?

The Nether did indeed experience a high level of sell outs, and we extended [the run].  Clearly, word of mouth was super strong on that one – whenever we have to extend a show, it means that we are experiencing a high level of single ticket buyers.
We often had over half the audience staying to talk about the show with our Stay Late talks…the show is so complex, and doesn’t offer easy answers. Clearly the show sparked a lot of conversation. While it wasn’t for everyone, many of our audience members express that it’s been their favorite. I strive to curate a season that delights, entertains…and, at times, challenges.
Basil Considine