Change is in the air as Guthrie and Jungle theaters welcome new leaders

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Joe Haj (photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp) and Sarah Rasmussen (photo by Jenny Graham)

It's forgivable that that Joe Haj's office, overlooking the Mississippi River and the underside of the Guthrie's signature Endless Bridge, has a just-moved-in vibe. Since joining the theater as the latest artistic director, Haj has had a lot more to deal with than getting his framed theater posters on the walls.

Meanwhile, over in Lyn-Lake, Sarah Rasmussen is positively giddy about the late-summer spruce-up happening at her new home, the Jungle Theater. Drop cloths cover the lobby as we head off to Muddy Waters to chat about her new job as the theater's leader.

"There are welders onstage," she says with plenty of excitement.

The plates are full for Haj and Rasmussen, who have replaced legends — Joe Dowling and Bain Boehlke — at their respective theaters. Since July 1, they have worked to find their feet and hit the ground running.

"I started on July 1, but mentally I started way back on March 27," Rasmussen says. "I signed the contract on my lunch break [of a show I was directing]. I got up the next morning, and started reading scripts. The process has been compressed, but it has been decades in the making."

Growing up in tiny Sisseton, South Dakota, Rasmussen had to make her own theater.

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Guthrie Theater

"I started directing in earnest in middle school. Our little town needed theater, and directing was the way I could make it happen," Rasmussen says.

She learned plenty putting on shows in basements and school gyms. At one point she got in touch with the Children's Theatre Company to see if there was a chance to get the rights to any of their work.

"They let me have all of their scripts for free," she says.

CTC also provided Rasmussen's first encounter with Boehlke.

"Probably the first professional show I saw was Cinderella at the Children's Theatre Company with Bain in it," Rasmussen says.

Her interest in theater took Rasmussen to St. Olaf, and then to UC-San Diego for graduate school. From there, she spent time in New York and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and then took a faculty position at the University of Texas in Austin.

She continued to direct throughout all of this, making several trips to the Twin Cities. Rasmussen worked for Ten Thousand Things, Mixed Blood, and the Jungle, where she crafted a well-received production of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play.

"The Jungle feels like the way I want a theater to feel. It has ghosts. It has those weird nooks and crannies. It has those red velvet seats. It is steeped in its own authentic history. That is something that you can't replicate," Rasmussen says.

She always hoped to return to the Jungle. Now she is stepping into Boehlke's considerable shoes. Though Boehlke has decamped to Seattle, his presence is still felt at the theater, right down to the newly installed marquee designed by the theater's founder.

"If you look at the Venn diagram of Bain and Sarah, we share a lot of the core values. But I think it would be foolish to be Bain," she says. "We are at the opposite ends of the spectrum as far as gender and age. As the theater moves forward, I hope it is organically infused with things that I will bring to it at this stage of my career."

Haj comes to the Guthrie after spending nine years at PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. His connection to the Twin Cities and Tyrone Guthrie's vision go back quite a bit further.

"I essentially began my professional career at the Guthrie. After I got out of grad school, I was here as a member of the acting company [from 1989-91]. I did half a dozen shows. The Guthrie is sacred space for me. It was utterly formative to my understanding as an artist, and helped to make me the theater person I wanted to be," the 51-year-old Haj says.

Haj's career took him throughout the country and overseas, collecting accolades. Once established at PlayMakers, Haj wasn't looking for the next step.

"The first couple of years after the success, people asked when I was going to leave. I told them, 'I'm good here until the Guthrie calls,"' Haj says.

The Guthrie did call, as the search for Dowling's replacement started in earnest last summer. As Haj moved through layers of interviews and selections, he had to keep the search under his hat. The eventual announcement came as something of a relief.

"I am a very bad and very guilty liar. I was telling half truths as I was building a play out in Oregon," Haj says.

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Jungle Theater

From February to July, Haj worked both at PlayMakers and the Guthrie before taking over from Dowling. Since then, his job has been about learning how the Guthrie and the Twin Cities theater community tick.

Haj is filling the role of Dowling, who led the Guthrie for two decades and oversaw its move from the original space on Vineland to its current digs downtown by the river.

"It would be idiotic for me to come in and say, 'Hi, I'm Joe Haj and this is my vision for the Guthrie.' What has been important to me is that I have met everybody who works in this building. I've also been meeting with small groups of the board and other theater artists. It's a listening tour. I'm trying to see where the Guthrie sits in the theater ecology of the Twin Cities. Any vision worth having includes the dreams and aspirations of the people who have the Guthrie in their lives," Haj says.

Much of the 2015-16 season was already set when Haj came on board earlier this year, and he knew that the first months would be taken up with getting grounded at the Guthrie. But he also didn't want to wait until next summer's South Pacific to make his directing debut. The solution came from the show he was building at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during the final days of the search: Pericles, one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, will transfer to the Guthrie after runs in Oregon and Washington, D.C.

"By the time it is done, the actors will have been with Pericles for 13 months. It's probably the longest run in the 400 years of the play," Haj says. "I think it is a really fine production of an underdone show."

With a thrust, a proscenium, and a black-box, the Guthrie has plenty of seats to fill. That gives the theater the flexibility to present a wide swath of shows for varying tastes.

"There are people who would rather pull their own teeth than sit through a four-hour production of Long Day's Journey into Night. Others would want their teeth pulled rather than watch a two-hour production of a super-happy musical. We all have different tastes," Haj says. "Think of it as a meal. It can't all be meat. It can't all be cake."

The key for Haj is to make great theater.

"I like theater that is rigorous and smart and where it doesn't feel like navel-gazing. I am super interested in theater that is interested in something other than itself. I like smart, muscular, and front-footed work. The more art for art's sake it becomes, the less interested I am in the work."

For both Haj and Rasmussen, being a part of the greater Twin Cities community is key. Rasmussen notes that the local acting and creative talent is incredibly flexible.

"Artists can be on the Guthrie thrust, but also can connect at the circle at Ten Thousand Things. Minneapolis is a bit of a best-kept secret in the country," she says.

Haj is eager to embrace the area.

"I want to be a very good participant in the ecology of Twin Cities theater. It is my nature and my desire. How is the Guthrie going to be a good citizen in this landscape?" Haj says.



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