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McCarter's New Chief, Sarah Rasmussen, Is a Burst of Energy

By Bruce Chadwick


originally published: 03/20/2022

McCarter

I have been sitting here for quite a while, staring out the window at a pond through a soft and very dreary rain. I have been trying to think of the best way to describe Sarah Rasmussen, the new artistic director of Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, who took over the reins of leadership in the middle of the pandemic. Should I say she is a new Shakespearean scholar, an impressionist of the drama, a philosophical innovator?

No. The best to describe her, plain and simple, is to say she is the theater world’s energizer bunny. Like the little television advertising bunny, she is always on the go, night or day, here, there and everywhere.

Rasmussen has plenty of theatrical experience. She came to McCarter from her job as artistic director of the Jungle Theater, in Minneapolis. Before that, she was resident director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Black Swan Lab new work development program.  She directed plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Guthrie Theater, Dallas Theater Center, the Actors Theater, in Louisville, the La Jolla Playhouse, in California, and won numerous awards.

So she is eminently qualified to be the theater chief at McCarter. It isn’t her resume, impressive as it is, that makes her special, though.

It is her love of the arts and love of McCarter and New Jersey.



 
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“I am just giddy to be here!” she said in a burst of happiness. “At McCarter, there is never a dull moment.”

She had to assume leadership at one of the nation’s most prestigious theaters, which was a tough job. She also had to lead the theater back from the pandemic, a really hard job. And on top of all that, she had to replace Emily Mann, the distinguished artistic director and nationally renown playwright, who had just stepped down as McCarter’s chief.

“I acknowledge all that of that, but I’m here to do a job and I intend to do it,” she said.

Ms. Rasmussen, who grew up in a small town in South Dakota, where she began directing plays at the age of 14, dazzling an army of high schoolers, will retain the overall look of McCarter which is a combination of plays and a long, long schedule of dance and music groups, but add new looks.

“I want to stage a lot more musicals, but musicals that are fresh, that have a new and different look. I think McCarter has to expand to appeal to all kinds of people,” she said.

She and her staff weathered the pandemic well. “The COVID cases are going down and I think we are headed back to normalcy,” said Rasmussen “Audiences have been great about vaccination cards and IDs and masks, they seem to be sticking with us in this monastic era. We’ll be OK.”

McCarter

An example of her new look musical is Ride the Cyclone: The Musical, that opens April 30.

“How to describe it? It’s the wildest thing you ever saw. A bunch of kids from a local choir in Canada go to an amusement park and run to the park’s roller coaster. They get stuck on it. Throughout the play, you meet lots of characters from amusement parks. We even have a 'Karnak the Magnificent' type character (Johnny Carson show) who stumbled into the plot.  It is a musical with a very different look. It’s exactly the ‘new’ type of play we want to do now and in the future,” said Rasmussen.

Ride the Cyclone reflects her view of the McCarter. “This is part of my agenda here. I want new stuff!” she said. “We need new energy here.”

Dreaming Zenzile, which was staged at McCarter last month, was an example of that. The play set in both Africa and America was the story of singer and political activist Miriam Makeba. It featured both American and African music, an enormous amount if dancing   and a keen sense of history and Makeba’s role in the African saga. Rasmussen did not pick the play for the theater line-up (it was already on the schedule when she arrived) but she liked the story.

“My kind of play,” she said.

McCarter



 
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Succeeding Emily Mann does not phase her at all. “She is a great talent and did a superb job here. I follow a different drummer and I am establishing my own look here and I will follow her success, I hope,” said Sarah.

Mann was a legend at McCarter. She served as the artistic director of the theater for 30 years. She was also a playwright. She wrote Having Our Say, Execution of Justice, Still Life, Gloria: A Life, An Autobiography, Greensboro (a Requiem), Meshugah, Mrs. Packard and Hoodwinked (a Primer on Radical Islamism, and adapted several plays, such a Baby Doll, Scenes from a Marriage and Antigone. Emily won numerous playwriting awards.

The McCarter’s new artistic director sees no real difference between audiences in New Jersey and in Minneapolis, where she worked for years, heading up the Jungle Theater. “All audiences in all states are looking for good theater. I think each region has particular likes, of course, but overall the theater audience is the same no matter where you are.” 

She is impressed by the people who work at McCarter. “They work hard. They are all determined to make the theater better and you can’t ask for more than that,” said Rasmussen.

She works hard, too. Since her arrival, she has become friendly with numerous people at the University and in the community. She even took part in a number of “Fireside Chats” (a la FDR) sort of podcasts, in which she met and chatted with different people who worked in Princeton, including a music store owner. The “chats” were taped in the front of the old stone theater.

“I enjoyed those talks.,” she said. “Meeting new people is always fun.”

What does the future hold? Who knows? But the energizer bunny will get there before anybody else.

McCarter



Bruce Chadwick worked for 23 years as an entertainment writer/critic for the New York Daily News. Later, he served as the arts and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national online weekly magazine. Chadwick holds a Ph. D in History and Cultural Studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on U.S. history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a history professor at New Jersey City University.





EVENT CALENDAR

ART | COMEDY | DANCE | MUSIC | THEATRE | COMMUNITY

The Wolves

Wednesday, September 28, 2022 @ 7:30pm
McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theater)
91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540
category: theatre


Click here for full description

The Caretaker

Wednesday, September 28, 2022 @ 7:30pm
Shakespeare Theatre Of NJ - F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940
category: theatre


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The Wolves

Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 7:30pm
McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theater)
91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540
category: theatre


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Brooklyn Rider

Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 7:00pm
Grunin Center
1 College Drive, Toms River, NJ 08754
category: music


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The Caretaker

Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 8:00pm
Shakespeare Theatre Of NJ - F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940
category: theatre


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Vivid Stage presents "Soft Animals"

Thursday, September 29, 2022 @ 8:00pm
Oakes Center
120 Morris Avenue, Summit, NJ 07901
category: theatre


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Sweet Baby James

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 8:00pm
Algonquin Arts Theatre
60 Abe Voorhees, Manasquan, NJ 08736
category: music


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The Wolves

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 8:00pm
McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theater)
91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540
category: theatre


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OPENING NIGHT: AN EVENING WITH RENÉE ELISE GOLDSBERRY

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 8:00pm
Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC)
100 South Street, Morristown, NJ 07960
category: music


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Joey Skaggs: Metamorphosis, Cockroach Miracle Cure, Urania Leilus, The House, Panta Rei, The Hauntings of New Hope - Shorts Program - Online for 24 Hours and In Person at 7PM!

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 7:00pm
NJ Film Festival
71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
category: film


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Adelphi Orchestra - Love Letter to Humanity

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 7:30pm
Fair Lawn Community Center
10-10 20th Street, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410
category: music


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The Caretaker

Friday, September 30, 2022 @ 8:00pm
Shakespeare Theatre Of NJ - F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940
category: theatre


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