Professional theater director and St. Olaf alumna Sarah Rasmussen ’01 returned to the Hill on Oct. 22 to visit several classes and speak with students about her recent directorial work and theater arts in general.
After Rasmussen graduated from St. Olaf with majors in English and theater, she traveled to Norway on a Fulbright Scholarship to continue her study of theater. Upon returning to the United States, Rasmussen received an MFA from the University of California-San Diego before beginning her career as a theater director. Since then, she has directed or assisted with performances in venues ranging from Broadway to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to the La Jolla Playhouse in California to the Mixed Blood Theater in Minneapolis.
Most recently, Rasmussen has begun directing Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room” or The Vibrator Play, which will open at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis on Nov. 2 and run until Dec. 16.
Ruhl’s play takes place in the late-19th century in upstate New York and discusses the medical use of the recently invented vibrator to “cure” women’s hysteria. The treatment helped afflicted women reach a “hysterical paroxysm,” which is Victorian medical-speak for an orgasm. The largely light-hearted play, which was nominated for several Tony Awards, deals with themes of sexuality, medical ethics and marriage while also raising questions about the value of technological progress and the ways it affects interpersonal relationships.
Although this will be the first time Rasmussen has directed “In the Next Room” on her own, she served as assistant director on a Broadway production of the play, which gave her the chance to meet and work alongside Ruhl. Working with the playwright gave Rasmussen a great sense of the love of language and literature that informs the poetic lyricism of the dialogue of “In the Next Room.” Rasmussen also expressed excitement about getting to direct this rather intimate play in a smaller, more intimate environment than the large-scale Broadway production.
During Rasmussen’s visit to campus last week, she met and spoke with several groups of students that shared an interest in theater and literature. While she certainly talked at length about her recent work with Ruhl’s play, she also shared her thoughts on everything from Shakespeare to poetry to feminism to Aristotelian narrative arcs.
While speaking with an English seminar that recently read “In the Next Room,” Rasmussen explained why the play, concerned as it is with a Victorian world far-removed from our own time, is nonetheless relevant to contemporary experience.
“Although we have some remove from this comedic time period,” Rasmussen said, “these characters still look back at us through the frame, asking about our contemporary lives and making us think about the relation between the stage and the world.”
Rasmussen also spoke about her admiration for Ruhl as a feminist playwright challenging the few stereotypical roles open to women in traditional theater. “Ruhl writes roles for women other than the ‘young lover,'” Rasmussen said.
Some of the most fascinating moments of the director’s talk with the seminar occurred when she shared her philosophy about theater in general. Rasmussen compared plays to poems, explaining that both genres leave open many spaces for the audience to fill in with their own experiences. She also told students about her personal criteria for evaluating plays – a task she undertakes regularly while working with young playwrights and reviewing new plays.
“In a good play, everyone is right. Everyone is trying to be their best,” Rasmussen said. “There are no villains.”
Rasmussen said that the many new plays fall into the trap of trying too hard to make a point and push a political or social agenda. According to the director, such plays ignore the true purpose of the theater.
“Good plays are all about questions. They shouldn’t have a thesis statement,” Rasmussen said.
Students wishing to see the work of this erudite and passionate alumna should head up to the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis sometime within the next month and attend a performance of “In the Next Room.” The play promises many laughs at the expense of 19th-century ignorance about sexuality, but will also raise many serious questions about your own relationships, both to others and to technology.