What’s Next for the Jungle Theater?

Technology and inclusivity are among the Minneapolis theater’s future goals following artistic director Sarah Rasmussen’s exit
Sarah Rasmussen and Christina Baldwin
Sarah Rasmussen and Christina Baldwin

Courtesy Jungle Theater

As of May 15, the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis officially bid farewell to Sarah Rasmussen, its artistic director of five years.

With Rasmussen’s exit for a new position at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater Center, Christina Baldwin became the interim artistic director. Baldwin was named the Jungle’s resident director in June 2018 and, with the help of the BOLD Theater Women’s Leadership Circle, became its associate artistic director in April 2019. 

Interim artistic director Christina Baldwin
Interim artistic director Christina Baldwin

William Clark

Currently, her position is slated to last through June 2021, and then the theater’s board will decide what happens next. “Ultimately, I want what’s best for the Jungle, and I’m very passionate about it. We’ll see what the future brings,” Baldwin says.

The Jungle has wrapped up its season prematurely, closing its production of Redwood after four performances, cancelling Cambodian Rock Band with Theater Mu, and throwing its annual B.A.S.H. online. Like every other theater leader during the pandemic, Baldwin is faced with having to suss out the future of an art that is meant to bring people together while keeping its creators safe and supported.

While the Jungle is still unfurling its pandemic plans, I was able to chat with Baldwin and managing director Robin Gillette about their changing roles. 

So I have to ask. How are you doing with the pandemic?

Christina Baldwin: I think the main thing that Robin and I are concentrating on is how do we sustain ourselves? And not only survive but also adapt? We want to evolve, but we want to stay rooted in the legacy of what everyone knows and trusts to be the Jungle Theater. [It] is one that began with Bain [Boehlke] with exceptional storytelling and design that was continued and morphed by Sarah [Rasmussen]’s tenure. She brought amazing innovation and inclusion to the Jungle.

Can we get a sneak peek of some of your future plans?

Baldwin: We’re looking to use models that do more virtual running content, some audio content, and we’re looking also to use the assets that we have in our building. 

Robin Gillette: I wish we did not have a pandemic. That’d be great, but now that we have it, it is exciting to have the opportunity we have from the bottom to think about new ways to do things. The Jungle doesn’t exist to gather 148 people in the room or to watch live actors onstage. What we exist to do is tell stories.

Baldwin: This too shall pass at some point, but we will be forever changed by it and how we perceive the stories will be changed and how we interact with it. For a long time, I think there have been ways that the old model of creation in theater wasn’t inclusive enough and wasn’t accessible enough. How can we examine that now? 

I’m not interested in a stopgap or in something that is just for now. I’m interested in how we can adapt these practices and [use] more technology—and not in a bad word, capital T. Technology is inherently beautiful in its original intention, which was to make things more accessible and make things more useful. It’s a tool, right? How can we use these tools to tell our stories and get it out there to more people?

How has being the Jungle’s associate artistic director helped your transition, Christina?

Baldwin: Oh, it’s helped it immensely. Sarah has always been so giving of her time and her experiences, and sharing her experiences with me, and including me with every level of the Jungle Theater. I feel I’ve been privileged to have this unique position that allowed me to really get to know the needs of the Jungle Theater and its collaborators and its board and its audiences. Sarah has remained a friend and a mentor: Her last day was officially May 15 last week, and we still chat every day.

And how has your time with the Moving Co. and Theatre de la Jeune Lune affected your leadership at the Jungle?

Baldwin: Moving Co. and my time at Theatre de la Jeune Lune was extremely formative for me. I’ve said this before to some folks, but when Jeune Lune ended, I had a child, and my brother passed away all within two weeks of each other. At that point, I looked around and I realized that this moment I have is fleeting. I want to stand up and make sure the things I want to see continue do continue. So back then, I started the path of being behind the scenes more in the theater world, doing more writing and music direction, and educating myself on best practices and being involved in all of those things. I see that as the beginning of the path I’m on now, and I just keep walking forward.

[Editor’s note: Baldwin is still on the board at the Moving Co.]

Christina Baldwin as Nora in the Jungle's 2020 production of "A Doll's House, Part 2"
Christina Baldwin as Nora in the Jungle’s 2020 production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2”

Lauren B Photography

What has kept you both in the Twin Cities?

Baldwin: What kept me here in the cities was the quality of collaboration that I’ve had and the community that allowed me to do so many things. I’m not like a main muscle but one of those stabilizing muscles; I’m one of the connecting tissues. That’s where I flourish. I like to sing, act, direct; I do all those things. It’s hard to be allowed to do that, frankly. People [normally] want you to choose, and I was encouraged here to do all the things. The people and the legacy in the cities of collaborative performers who use many different methods of storytelling is enormous. 

Gillette: I’ve been in the Twin Cities since 2001, and while Christina’s on the art side, I’m the furthest thing from an artist. I love the structure of the arts community in the Twin Cities. We have the large organizations, like the Guthrie, Children’s Theatre Co., Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra. Those broad talents provide sustained employment for literally hundreds and hundreds of top-notch people onstage, offstage—building the costumes, doing the marketing, doing the fundraising. I think that brings a base of talent to the Twin Cities [which allows] theaters of this size, and smaller, to have. There are so many different tiers and sizes who can all work together and [artists] are free to travel in between.

How have your roles changed because of the pandemic?

Baldwin: The pattern is different for me. It’s not business as usual, but I also wasn’t privy to that “business as usual” in the same way. This is a time of big innovation and change. Not in a way that is threatening to the old ways; this can be a really wonderful opportunity to find a better way, a more inclusive way. So I think for me, it’s making sure that we all stay open to hearing the stories and listening to people and learning from one another.

Gillette: As would be expected, your answer would be the arts side, and my answer is on the other side of it, which is why we’re a good team. 

Baldwin: I know, I was just going to say that! 

Gillette: As a managing director, I’m in charge of X, Y, and Z, and then there’s a series of subtasks that allow me to execute the overall tasks. I was talking to my marketing manager this morning, and one of my jobs is to work with her and put together the program, proofreading, editing, ad sales. I don’t think programs are going to be a thing anymore. But it’s not like that task comes off my list. I need to think in a bigger picture: Why was the Jungle doing programs? Oh, OK. To acknowledge artists involved, to be  partnership for our sponsors and our commercial relations. In this new world, how do we accomplish those same ends with some very different means?

Baldwin: I have to say that I am in a very privileged position to be able to work with the likes of Robin Gillette. And it’s true—I would say this if you weren’t listening and I wasn’t trying to bum a dollar off you, Robin [laughs]. There’s been so much that just feels organically right, and one of those things is being able to work with Robin because she has this amazing, amazing diverse wealth and experience and integrity. It just made my job—I don’t want to say easier, but it’s been deeper because the questions she asks and the challenges she puts out there allow us to go deeper as an organization to find better ways. 

Gillette: Thank you! 

Baldwin: Well, you’re welcome. Now can I have a dollar?

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

Christina Baldwin, Robin Gillette, and Sarah Rasmussen during the Jungle's virtual B.A.S.H. this May
Christina Baldwin, Robin Gillette, and Sarah Rasmussen during the Jungle’s virtual B.A.S.H. in May 2020

Courtesy Jungle Theater