WHITTIER — Two of Sarah Rasmussen’s favorite playwrights open and close the Jungle Theater’s recently announced 2016 season, her debut as artistic director.
Rasmussen plans to direct both Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Oldest Boy,” a new play by Sarah Ruhl making its Midwest premier at the Jungle. Ruhl is one of the most-produced contemporary playwrights in American theater and the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “genius grant.” Shakespeare’s resume speaks for itself.
“I think they’re really in conversation with each other because somebody like Sarah (Ruhl) is — in a different way, in a contemporary way, in a female way — doing kind of what makes a Shakespeare play work, in that language really leads,” Rasmussen said. “Language invents the world.”
So: two theatrical geniuses, separated by four centuries, bookending the Jungle’s new season and drawing brackets around a theater artist’s unique sensibility. Minneapolis, meet Sarah Rasmussen.
A collective effort
Rasmussen, 36, is the first person not named Bain Boehlke to lead the theater in all of its 25-year history. The Jungle founder announced his retirement in July 2014, and almost exactly a year later, on this past July 1, Rasmussen started her new job.
Her first task?
“Reading every play ever written,” she joked during a recent conversation in the theater’s cozy lobby.
A slight exaggeration, yes, but it’s also true that a theater season is often planned a year or more in advance. Rasmussen accomplished it in less than three months, but not alone.
The Jungle’s staff gathered with her this summer for table readings of potential 2016 productions. It was like a book club, Rasmussen said, and afterwards, during the conversation that followed, she’d ask: “Is this a Jungle play? What makes this a Jungle play?”
That collective effort will bring to the Jungle stage an intimate, two-actor drama that channels mind-bending quantum physics into a couple’s relationship (“Constellations”); an exploration of the meaning of commitment in a post-gay marriage age (“Le Switch”); and the premier of a deeply musical play about faith, freedom and brotherhood with a soundtrack that fuses jazz, classical and hip hop (“Bars and Measures”).
“I think if we look at what we’re doing next season, they feel very much like Jungle plays but it’s also the most inclusive season the Jungle has ever done in terms of roles for women, in terms of diversity, in terms of new voices and perspectives on all angles of production,” Rasmussen said.
“Let’s put on a play”
Rasmussen developed her all-female version of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” while resident director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In Elizabethan-era England the cast would’ve been all men, and in flipping it Rasmussen intends to make gender beside the point, instead foregrounding the play’s themes of friendship and forgiveness.
“The Oldest Boy,” about an American mother and her son who may be the reincarnation of a Buddhist lama, will be the second Ruhl play Rasmussen directs for the Jungle stage. In 2012, it was Ruhl’s “In the Next Room,” featuring set design by Boehlke — his first time designing a Jungle play he didn’t also direct, Rasmussen said.
“I loved the way things worked here,” she recalled. “It was very organic and childlike in the best sense of the word, in that it felt like, ‘Let’s put on a play.’”
Rasmussen said Ruhl was astonished when she learned Boehlke gave his actors six weeks of rehearsal. In New York City, previews in front of live audiences might begin after three-and-a-half weeks.
“I think Bain had a really beautifully old-fashioned sense that things take the time they take,” she said.
This summer, Rasmussen moved to Kingfield with her husband, playwright Josh Tobiessen, with whom she has a young son. She returned to the Midwest after freelancing around the country and, since 2012, heading the MFA directing program at the University of Texas at Austin.
There’s a coming-full-circle quality to Rasmussen’s taking charge at the Jungle that seems almost scripted. But it just so happens that a little girl growing up in Sisseton, S.D., learned to love the theatre on trips to the Twin Cities, where one of the first productions she ever saw was “Cinderella” at the Children’s Theatre Company.
Boehlke, then a leading actor at CTC, was on stage.
“That always gives me chills,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful art form that way, that it truly does get passed down person-to-person in that apprentice-like way.”
In Rasmussen’s teen years, it was the Guthrie Theater under former artistic director Garland Wright that catalyzed her love for Shakespeare. Wright, a painter turned actor turned director, is remembered for his imaginative, highly visual style, and he inspired a fledgling theater director in Sisseton to recruit her friends and neighbors as actors and put on her first plays.
“I think deep down I always wanted to come back to that feeling, of really having a home and creating work for a specific community,” she said.
The Jungle sunk “deep, wonderful roots” into Minneapolis under Boehlke’s leadership, Rasmussen said. Now it’s her turn to coax it into bloom.
The Jungle Theater 2016 season
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona,” by William Shakespeare. Directed by Sarah Rasmussen. Opens Feb. 12.
“Constellations,” by Nick Payne. Directed by Gary Gisselman. Opens April 15.
“Le Switch,” by Philip Dawkins. Directed by Jeremy Cohen. Opens June 17.
“Bars and Measures,” by Idris Goodwin. Directed by Marion McClinton. Opens Aug. 26.
“The Oldest Boy,” by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Sarah Rasmussen. Opens Nov. 4.
Season tickets go on sale to new subscribers Nov. 16. Single tickets go on sale Jan. 4.
For tickets or more information, call 822-7063 or go to jungletheater.com.