Newly appointed McCarter Theater artistic director Sarah Rasmussen says the hardest part of leading the Princeton-based professional theater is dealing with “the unknown.”
She’s referring to the break in normality that took center stage of American culture earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic made its debut and closed theaters and churches. A cure or all-clear sign to resume theater productions is silently waiting in the wings.
“There are just unknowns for places where people gather,” she says as she attempts to develop communal theater experiences.
“We value the experience of gathering,” she says, seemingly speaking for theater artists around the world.
Yet unlike other theater companies who may have trouble with funding and artistic support, Rasmussen says McCarter is fortunate and has “strong leadership and board” and the support helping the company to weather the unfriendly season.
“The board has been nimble as to how to be responsive and reassess reopening and various scenarios when we reopen,” she says.
And while she says McCarter is doing well with online classes, which have been joined by people from all over the country, she adds, “we miss being live and in person.”
“It is an awful time in many ways, but there are unexpected gifts,” she says, thinking both philosophically and creatively.
She says, “McCarter has a transition of leadership. That brings a shifting. I am excited about building on Emily Mann’s legacy, but there is a new way.”
That includes using the pandemic-caused “clog in the production schedule” and a summer marked by calls for racial justice and equity to mix the theater’s tradition with current social needs.
She says the staff and board have been discussing diversity and “using this time to make McCarter a welcoming place for artists, staff, and audience.”
“There is room for improvement and growth. We can do better as an arts organization,” she says.
For her part, Rasmussen says, while she and her colleagues are “in such a huge conversation about dealing with racial justice” it is also “important to be listening and to talk with community partners who have been close to McCarter and folks who have not been connected with McCarter.
“I am going to start this fall and develop a long-term conversation as a way to learn more about the community. I’m still the new kid in the neighborhood.”
Rasmussen — who has two children with playwright Josh Tobiessen and recently moved with her family to Princeton — will also add to the conversation through her art when the theater opens.
“I’m coming to this job after being an artistic director (of the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota). I am interested in intergenerational work or work that is inclusive and focuses on artists of color — there are so many stories that have not had much representation.”
Additionally, she continues, “A big hallmark of my work is gender parity, where women are not as represented as males playwrights and directors are. That is important.”
She is also a “big fan of comedy, and I take comedy very seriously. Comedy is a big way to open our hearts and to delve into some thorny topics in ways that are engaging. I am uninterested in plays that have an obvious point,” preferring works that encourage the audience to ask questions.
In regards to her style, she says, “I am a visual director. I love working with design teams to create environments that feel inviting and have people feel like they’ve been somewhere they’ve never been before.”
That goal seems connected with her initial interest in theater when she was a young girl in Sisseton, South Dakota.
The town, population approximately 2,500, is a mixed community located in the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribal reservation.
“I grew up in a place that didn’t have any theater,” says Rasmussen, who is of European background. “My mom was an English teacher and felt that the arts were important.”
She says she first got introduced to theater by watching the Great Performance Series on television.
“People say it is better to see theater on the stage,” she says. “I saw things on ‘Live from Lincoln Center’ on TV. Recorded access is important.”
She says the theater spark ignited when her mother took her to see Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, 220 miles away from Sisseton.
The production was directed by Garland Wright, noted for his visual staging.
“I said, ‘This was magic’ and wished there was a way to share with my community. So I figured I would do it.”
Rasmussen then created her first theater company when she was 14 years old.
She says her mother and father — who grew up on a farm but then worked at a bank — were very encouraging and understood that living in a small town required developing opportunities.
That approach, says Rasmussen, was “if you don’t see what you want here, we’ll figure it out.”
When Rasmussen told her father about her desire to turn her family’s basement into a performance space. “He said, ‘What do you think will help?’ And I said ‘paint the ceiling black’ — like a black box theater. He agreed.”
The result was “we had kids in the basement and 40 kids on the stage. We’d take those shows to local schools and perform them mostly in gyms. For many kids it was the first time they’d see a play or get in a play. They were very important memories. It was about creating art for a community. I’m grateful for my parents letting their kids do what they wanted to do. ”
She says her interest in creating theater also connected her to the storytelling that was part of her family and community. “It was normal to me as a kid. It was an incredible gift to grow up in Sisseton and have a connection with native culture. I grew up with a big family; everything was intergenerational.”
Rasmussen later studied English at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, participated in the college’s Global Semester to study theater and art in London, England, and received an M.F.A. from the University of California.
The recipient of Princess Grace, Drama League, Fulbright, and OSF’s Phil Killian fellowships, Rasmussen directed productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Guthrie Theater, Dallas Theater Center, Actors Theater of Louisville, and La Jolla Playhouse. She also served as a resident director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Black Swan new work program and as the head of the University of Texas at Austin’s masters in fine arts directing program.
She says she sees theater as something “to make us more alive” and “to go back to the world with new energy.”
To make that happen, Rasmussen says she approaches theater by asking a few simple questions: Why are we telling this story right now? Who is the audience for this story? And what questions do we want to ask?
“It is all about the spark of connection with the audience. And it deals with the alchemy of time,” she says.
Then, speaking on what differentiates theater from film, video, and digital presentations, she says. “There has to be an event, a sense of occasion, larger than life. It makes you think. It’s incumbent on theaters to speak to the moment.”
She says one of the approaches to make that happen is bringing people together through laughter. “I think comedy is really important. It is very different to laugh with others in a room than watching it on a laptop. It feels different with a group a people in the room.”
After all, as she says, theater is “a place to celebrate our time and celebrate our humanity.”
For updates on McCarter Theater’s activities, events, and reopening, visit www.mccarter.org.