This Rough Magic

With bare-bones budgets and ambitious productions, Michelle Hensley takes theater off the stage and into the trenches

"The thing to remember with Shakespeare," advises Michelle Hensley, "is that he's dead and you're not." It's Tuesday morning, and Hensley is perched on the edge of a table in the carpeted basement of a St. Paul Quaker meetinghouse, fiddling with the laces of her shoes and trying to figure out how to stage a shipwreck. The ship--a pair of judiciously placed chairs and a coiled extension cord--is only a few feet from a ring of metal folding chairs. The cast balances precariously on one of the chairs. Imagine them in full Elizabethan regalia and the effect is like some wacky experiment with clowns and minicars. If they flounder too wildly, they run the risk of rolling into the laps of the audience. The play is Shakespeare's The Tempest, and, like every production of Hensley's itinerant Ten Thousand Things Theater Company, it is necessarily a storm brewed in a teacup.

Making magic with the barest of ingredients is Hensley's métier. As artistic director of Ten Thousand Things, she produces three plays each season on a budget that would not feed a typically anemic small theater: She spends about $1,000 per show and keeps her sets small enough to fold into the trunk of her car. For the first time in ten years, Hensley scraped together enough money last season to pay herself a small salary. And yet a thin wallet is as much a badge of honor to Ten Thousand Things as it is an impediment to others. For Hensley, minimalism is both a show of solidarity with the people she calls "our audience" and a show of dissent from big, bloated theater. Even if she had more cash on hand, she explains, she wouldn't change the way she directs shows; she'd like only to pay her actors more, and possibly add another play with a guest director. Most of all, she explains, she'd like her company to be taken seriously--a surprising admission, perhaps, from a director who thrives in anonymity.

That Ten Thousand Things performs almost exclusively in prisons, homeless shelters, and detox centers means that they are often dismissed as some sort of rarefied social-service brigade--this despite the fact that Hensley regularly chooses difficult plays and recruits the preeminent actors in the Twin Cities. "If you tell people you do prison shows, they think it's bad skits with bad acting and preachy morals," she says. "Our plays never profess to offer answers. People in our audience know there aren't any easy answers. I won't condescend to them like that.

"There are things that are more immediate in people's lives than theater": Ten Thousand Things artistic director Michelle Hensley
"There are things that are more immediate in people's lives than theater": Ten Thousand Things artistic director Michelle Hensley

"Audiences like that you respect their intelligence," she continues. "You can't make any assumptions about people. There's so little room in those places for any kind of sweetness. You get a hunger for it, I think." She recalls a prison performance of Maria Irene Fornes's Drowning in which a character asks rhetorically, "Is this why we come to live like this, to suffer?"

"Someone in the audience shouted out, 'No.' It was a blessing--just like an offering in a church," Hensley says. She can relate dozens of incidents of drama interruptus--a pregnant woman bawling through Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle; a going-away party for a paroled prisoner that coincided with a performance; a chorus of women responding with a choice interjection to the villain of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. On the significance of the audience's benediction she is more circumspect. "You learn not to take anything personally," she shrugs. "The guy in the front row who's asleep? He's asleep because he doesn't have anywhere else to go. There are things that are more immediate in people's lives than theater."

It is a lesson Hensley learned early on. During her first production, she recalls, she lost half her audience. One of her actors had just uttered the line, "Merely to get your dinner requires the strength of an empire builder." As if on cue, half the crowd stood up and shambled out. "We found out later they were going to the soup kitchen down the block," Hensley says. "It was lunchtime."

The director laughs softly when she tells the story. At the time, however, she was wondering if she had lost her mind. It was 1989, and she was a 31-year-old graduate student at UCLA, out of love with perpetually sunny Los Angeles and the rampant careerism of the local theater community. She and a group of friends were infatuated with a Brecht play, The Good Woman of Szechwan. But, she says, they did not want to perform for a typically thin L.A. audience. "We wanted to find an audience who would really appreciate that story. And we thought--sure--people who don't have much money. It seemed pretty simple at the time."

Hensley and her troupe found their audience at a Santa Monica drop-in shelter. And, despite the second-act migration, Hensley found her place. She recalls the production now as a minor epiphany. "It was scary, because we had no idea how people were going to react. The response we got was totally overwhelming. They didn't know you were supposed to be quiet, so everyone was laughing and talking back to the actors. I think they understood what Brecht was saying in a way a paying audience never could have."

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