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Sarah Rasmussen
Changemaker: As artistic director of the Jungle Theater since 2016, she has made dramatic advances in the local theater world for women
Sarah Rassmussen. Photo courtesy of the Jungle Theater.

If we want the next generation of local female writers, then let's start cultivating that now.
- Sarah Rasmussen

by Sheila Regan

As a woman and a theater director, Sarah Rasmussen knew things had to change. Despite women making up the majority of ticket buyers and audience members, they fall far behind in landing jobs as directors and playwrights, and especially artistic directors of major theaters.

That's why she decided to leave her job as a professor and head of the MFA directing program at the University of Texas at Austin to come to the Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis, where she directed her first show in the beginning of 2016.

"I felt so frustrated by the lack of representation of women in theater," she says. "I don't think it's going to change until people in leadership make different choices."

Since Rasmussen has come on board the Jungle, over 50 percent of the roles in the season have gone to women, and the theater has been mindful of staffing women on all levels, including builders, designers and crew. Rasmussen also filled the entire 2017 season with women directors and has increased the number of female playwrights the theater presents.

The result is that shows are selling at a higher capacity than they have in recent years. "I think there's a lot of mythology that women don't sell at the box office," Rasmussen says.

Part of the problem, according to Rasmussen, is that people are afraid that a new play won't sell, unless it's a title they know. But familiar titles often mean classics, which, by and large, are written by men.

"I like a classic play every now and again, but if you want better gender parity, you have to be looking at contemporary work because that's where women are being better represented," Rasmussen says.

For example, in the spring of 2018, Rasmussen will be directing Sarah DeLappe's play "The Wolves," about a high school soccer team. "It's looking at this microcosm of how these women are interacting and the challenges they are facing," Rasmussen says. "It's fierce and smart and honors the fullness of being a young woman in a way that's unflinching and bold and feels really new."

When she does direct classic plays, Rasmussen keeps things fresh. The first play she directed at the Jungle was Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," but she decided to switch things up by featuring an all-female cast. Doing so allowed the artists working on the show to look at gender, power and gender expectations. "When you see a relationship and you know that it's two women, you know you have to encounter it differently. What is a character and what is gender? It just opens up a broader range of questions to me," Rasmussen says.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen is making sure that she's creating space for women playwrights, and started a new playwriting program for young women from Minneapolis Public Schools, which began in October. The program includes three sessions for women ages 14-18, where they learn from a series of playwrights who are women of color and also each work with a professional theater mentor. "If we want the next generation of local female writers, then let's start cultivating that now," Rasmussen says.

FFI: Jungle Theater
Resources for encouraging women and girls to participate in theater:
League of Professional Theatre Women
FairPlay is a collective of women, trans and femme improvisers who create accessible, inclusive and equitable spaces. fairplaymn.wordpress.com
Other local theaters that are women-focused:
TheatreUnbound theatreunbound.com
Twenty Percent Theatre supports women and trans theater artists.

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