Jungle Theater’s Rasmussen makes a big — and bittersweet — move

Rasmussen is headed to New Jersey to lead the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton

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One of the Twin Cities’ leading theater directors is moving on. Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director of The Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, is headed to New Jersey.

There she will head up the prestigious McCarter Theatre Center on the campus of Princeton University.

women sitting in an empty theater audience
The Jungle Theater's artistic director Sarah Rasmussen
Photo by William Clark

Rasmussen’s departure from The Jungle Theater comes as a surprise. In just five years at the helm, she’s earned a reputation for delighting audiences with smart productions.

In an interview, Rasmussen said the move is bittersweet:

“I love the Twin Cities and I love Twin Cities Theater. And I was not looking to leave. But like many of the great things in life, it just sort of evolved.”

Rasmussen will be filling some big shoes at the McCarter Theatre Center. Her predecessor, Emily Mann, is a Tony award-winning director and nationally recognized leader in the regional theater movement.

“I think many of us female leaders owe our careers to the people like Emily, who paved the way for us,” she said. “Emily is the first woman to ever direct on the Guthrie stage. So, she's loomed large in my in my life and imagination.”

At Princeton, Rasmussen will be working alongside poet laureate Tracy K. Smith and feminist writer and theater critic Jill Dolan.

Rasmussen said she realized that if she turned down the opportunity to lead the McCarter Theatre Center, she would always wonder what might  have been.

Like the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the McCarter Theatre Center is a member of the League of Resident Theatres. The McCarter boasts three stages, which offer not just theater but music and dance. The McCarter lab has developed several Tony and Pulitzer award-winning plays, including “Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz and Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed.”

lead singer performing with five students singing back up
During her five years at The Jungle Theater, artistic director Sarah Rasmussen championed new plays, including "Ride the Cyclone," a dark and funny musical about six teenagers who die in a gruesome roller coaster accident, and must compete for the chance to return to life. Rasmussen said despite warning that new work was "too risky," audiences loved it.
Courtesy of Dan Norman

Rasmussen said she looks forward to more opportunities to commission and support new voices.

“I remember when I first interviewed for the job at The Jungle, and I was told by many people, ‘Oh, new work won't sell. That's too risky.’ And we've primarily done new work,” she said. “And primarily the newer, the more, you know, ‘risky’ in terms of subject matter or timeliness — the better that's been sold at the box office.”

Similarly in her time at The Jungle, Rasmussen has worked to create more opportunities for women and people of color on and off stage. With her help, several actors have developed their directing skills.

“I'm really proud that we gave folks the chance to do something new and often step outside of their comfort zone a little bit,” she said. “I like that. I think it can be hard to change course as an artist, or as a human. And I love that we've given people a chance to stretch. And I think a lot of the magic of the work has come from people being just a little outside their comfort zone as artists, and maybe as audience too. There's a real alchemy to that.”

Darius Dotch and Ansa Akyea play brothers.
Darius Dotch (left) and Ansa Akyea played brothers in Jungle Theater’s production of “Bars and Measures.” Rasmussen staged the production not long after taking the helm; it marked the first time the Jungle Theater hired an African American director, or staged a play by a black playwright.
Courtesy of Dan Norman

For the past two years, longtime Twin Cities theater artist Christina Baldwin has worked alongside Rasmussen as her associate artistic director; Baldwin will now step in as The Jungle’s interim artistic director.

Rasmussen acknowledged that it’s a strange time to make this transition, given that theaters are closed indefinitely. She has hopes for a future in which theater might emerge even stronger than before. But she’s sad to leave the theater community that inspired her to become a director in the first place. She said she’ll miss both the artists and the audiences.

“The audiences here are really … they're very special,” she said. “They're very thoughtful. And also, I think, really game to not only be entertained, but to have deeper conversations through theater about the most pressing questions of our time.”

Rasmussen said she’s looking forward to keeping that conversation going with the audience awaiting her in Princeton.

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