Passion Kaleidoscopes Fragrance and No Themes: An Interview with Tina Rasmussen

Tina Rasmussen is at once a severe and playful force. She is a delightful person with an explosive and fluid imagination. Tina has the gifts of an intense listener and an excitable speaker. It is no surprise that she is the resplendent mind behind World Stage. The dynamic 2012 season can be looked at here:

There are many shows to see and I will be sure to write about a few of them!

Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Tina, a chance that I will cherish for a long time. During this conversation she candidly articulated her views on World Stage, Toronto’s theatre community, and the transforming power of performance. 
I hope your senses are delighted and your thoughts are provoked by this interview where Tina generously describes the metaphors and realities that govern her artistic choices.

Without further ado, I present to you Tina Rasmussen.

Photograph by: Gordon Hawkins

Briefly describe the process that brought you here.

I was born and raised in Calgary. I studied theatre where I mostly did acting and directing. I then went to Edmonton, I actually did all of these auditions for a Masters in Acting in the States and I got into about seven schools, but, I didn’t go because I wanted to actually work with Robin Phillips. He was a master director working in his last year in Edmonton. I also met Albert Schultz, he was still working in television at the time. I was concerned about leaving the company at the Citadel because at the time I was a General Manager intern, so, out of pure fear I packed my car and drove across the country to work for Albert, and then we started working on founding Soulpepper in 1997 to 1998 with Diane Quinn, with Albert in his back yard twenty hours a day. I quickly realized that producing work was really up my alley, because as an actor you are not really in charge. I was too bossy really.  It is actually a very short story to be honest. I often pinch myself about that and how I am here. I left Soulpepper because it was Albert’s show to direct, and I didn’t want to be stuck there in a status position with him, which would have been fine because he is like a brother to me, but in terms of my creative life it wouldn’t have been as fulfilling. So then, this associate artistic director job opened with Don Shipley, so I did that, which was kind of an audition for me. So when Don stepped down I threw my hat in the ring and was appointed acting manager—it all comes down to auditioning, being in the right place at the right time, and also being an artist myself it’s always the lens through which I see everything, I feel this is the ultimate creative job, I feel extremely satisfied creatively.

What inspires you to continue your work as an artistic director?

I have a totally insatiable appetite and curiosity. I don’t separate my job from my life. I am constantly on stumble upon, I send so much information out to my staff. I steal I beg I borrow from all different kinds of things. I look out the window of my car as a proscenium; I see the theatre that surrounds us all the time. I find I could never run out of things to do. It’s through the idea of creating something and getting people – I look at the audience development as a one to one conversation.

I feel very evangelical about it. I don’t separate my life from work. Everything is inspired. I get inspired all the time. I have a lot of rage and a lot of love. I think they are the same thing.

I think my job is also very political, it is about trying to propose questions that people can have a conversation about, so much of it is about being an instigator.

Why do you think your job is political/socially relevant?

I think that artist development is audience development, so actually it is how I engage the artists so that they can say what they want to say. I have something to say too, but it is not about my aesthetic, it’s not masturbatory in that way. In every single case there is a reason, there may be different reasons, in every single case it is about how theatre is the arena where we can have a conversation about how we can live together, and recognize our biases and differences while trying to have a critical discussion. It is for the person who is just awake—not someone who is simply looking to say I like or I don’t like that. It is about the art framing the question of what is my role? And how do I become active and passive in the dark?

What are you looking for in the pieces you choose to program?

I look at putting a season together like building a fragrance, so that each individual show has its own scent. I think of theme as textures. I hate themes—themes to me are like primary colours, there is a joke at Harbourfront about how you should never say themes around me. It is way more prismatic and kaleidoscopic to build your season with textures  scents and ideas.

I also look at international trends, I program for artists in the community—if they come to me it can lead to the development of an art practice in the community. I also program for what the audience might be completely moved by so that some controversy and polarity is produced. I think polarity and controversy are good things. I also program a lot for love, if there is a lot of love in something I can become very inspired to program it.

What distinct qualities or ideas are you excited about that are being displayed in this season?

I am excited about the juxtaposition between lo-fi and hi-f work. I am compelled by the questions of the past and future, an old school esthetic versus a cyber beauty. I am interested in scale, in terms of small and large—epic in terms of Sophocles but done through 20 seats. The same with the dance; that urban dance be elevated to a street style to a higher art form transforming it into a conversation about art and the environment. Those are the some of the ideas in the season. I feel like this season asks the question: how do we demystify the theatre by making it accessible all the time?

 Why do you feel the audience will connect with this season?

I have an obsession with how the audience meets the work. It is a challenge when you have contemporary performance work where you have someone spinning around for two hours—and there are some that are more accessible than others.  It is something that I am constantly trying to find threads to when I am selling the work and when we are doing why videos and the interviews, that’s a big question: contemporary art sometimes isn’t accessible to everyone, so how do we give people the clues so that people can? I don’t want to underestimate the audience either, I mean my mother who is now going to be seventy-nine came in to see Ame Henderson in Relay, and I thought oh goodness she is going to hate this, and she loved it because she let herself go, she said she had permission to not really see any story but to see images, and I thought well that’s genius, she found that language for herself. I just have to know that if I felt something and saw something in it than it will work. Sometimes it is about pushing them—and hoping they come along with you, and sometimes you fail miserably, I think it is important that failure exists and we talk about it and why it didn’t work. Sometimes it’s about going through something.

How is World Stage distinct from other Toronto-based companies?

I always try to do what people aren’t doing. We have the contemporary art centre with the global perspective. It is about the involvement of the culture core, the idea that the national and the local are a part of the world, and the inclusion of Canadian artists that are in a position to move and to be a part of the trajectory of an international life, and, then, our support of those artists, selling their work helping them tour, that is a built in agency model that no one else in the city has. It is a competitive process. Not everyone is ready to have that, which is very exciting.

Talk about the World Stage Embassy.

It began with the idea of people converging into a space—it was about getting the audience to not be intimidated by the work, to understand the work, and feel included in this pocket. So that was the major focus of the embassy—having the ambassadors as a part of the work, giving the artists the opportunity to talk about their own practice and talk to the audience, which is also why audiences go to see art so they can talk to the artists. It’s a fluid program, no one has to pay—we want the artists to connect then if they are connected they will discuss their ideas and have an exchange with the audience, it’s a petri dish.

What recent risks have you taken that ended up being very rewarding?

Putting a commission as the opening show of the season Everything Under the Moon. I believed in the artists and everything they were doing, and anchoring it in the family day long week end, and displaying a work for young people that is not only relegated to young people.

Also sending out my party invitations with a sheep from Iceland on it. It is challenging being in a large institution that has a branding capacity, and wanting to have a direct relationship with the audience, and saying to people I want you to be at my party, it was my chance to bring in my community. I was so happy that people were so positive about how I designed my invitation. I think it paid off.

What other arts organizations or theatre companies inspire you?

All of them. If people are doing anything in terms of live performance then the more the better. If people are concerned with building an audience and thinking about their public I am inspired. I find cultural creation and cultural output pretty inspiring. Do I wish people were less stylized and wearing blinders? Yes, I wish there was more openness. I like people that are performance makers—I mean I would love to see Stratford fund people to do contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare plays.

What artists or companies make you jazzed about the future?

Well, I am pretty jazzed about Shakespeare, to be honest. I am reading Lear at the moment. I like the idea of artists trying to figure that out—I like the return to acting. Enough with the straight delivery and professional amateurs, I like strong acting. I like the exercise of that muscle. In terms of trends, I think Toronto is leaving the theatre and trying the promenade, I have seen all that so now I am interested in the return to the theatre. I have been interested in the joy division of a story about punk and necessity of punk as a mode of expression, and the necessity to the people to make the work as an economic, political and social statement. I’m really interested in master directors, when you walk down the street in Berlin you can say a handful of names and people will flock to the theatre. I’d like to see the development of master directors here, and then, of course, big conceptual pieces, so that we can bring those masters to our stages.

How has festival theatre influenced your company?

It’s a total inspiration. I could be out at the theatre seven nights a week. I think festival theatre in particular  helps with bringing awareness to work in development and gives the audience the opportunity to appreciate developing work.

If you could give yourself a title what would it be?

I would say hunch follower.

Pencils or Pens?

Oh Pens. I am very particular about my pens. I love them when they are fat and juicy.

For a break silence or music?


Black box or proscenium?


*     *     *     *     * 

Story by: Hannah Rittner

1 thought on “Passion Kaleidoscopes Fragrance and No Themes: An Interview with Tina Rasmussen

  1. Love that you interviewed Tina. She’s awesome.

    I do have to point out that some names are mispelled: Albert Schultz, Don Shipley, Ame Henderson. It really pulled me out of the interview.

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