This Rough Magic

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


Hensley, now 41, has an indulgent air about her. One frequent collaborator describes her fancifully and precisely as "a woodland sprite: very wise and very young at the same time." Her hair, which is the color of wheat, is threaded through with silver, and she has a habit of flipping it back as punctuation. She is unfailingly modest--a charming residual effect of an Iowa childhood--but her voice evinces a certain pride when she talks about the genesis of her company.

"There's a definite career path for directors," she explains. "You go to the [Mark] Taper [Forum], and do a reading of a script you don't care anything about. Then you wait a couple of years and you might get to assistant-direct a play you don't care anything about. I was just like, 'What's the point?' You don't make much money anyway, so I figured I would do something I cared about and not make much money that way."

"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

Hensley moved back to the Midwest in 1994 to raise her daughter. She immediately set about looking for local venues in which to perform, with the only stipulations that there should be no stage and that there shouldn't be much else in the room going on ("We have to catch our audience by surprise," she explains). Though Hensley hasn't made much money--none, in fact--she doesn't spend much time anymore agonizing over her chosen path. "Even though my salary is laughably small, I have more than 95 percent of people," she says. "It was something I used to struggle more with when I was younger. I could have chosen to have a lot more. On the surface, if you don't have as much, we think there must be something wrong with you. I see so many people my age who have everything and they still can't make themselves happy. I may struggle financially, but my life is pretty rich and happy."

This philosophy ties into the name of Hensley's company, Ten Thousand Things, which comes from a Maria Dermout novel she read in college. She chose it, as she chooses everything in life, on instinct: "I thought it expressed a breadth of possibility. And I just liked the book." As she discovered some years later, though, the phrase also refers in the Taoist cosmology to all the material things of the world--an appropriate moniker for a theater without a home. "Our audience doesn't have many of those things," Hensley muses. "Our company doesn't have many, either. It's always a question of how do those things get distributed. A few people have 9,999 of those things. How do you get those things?"

In Taoism, the principle of 10,000 things is used to illustrate the ephemerality of the senses. Each physical phenomenon, the theory goes, is a manifestation of the polar energies of yin and yang, which are, in turn, reflections of the Tao. To forgo desire, the Tao teaches, is to be free of the illusory separateness of all things and, finally, to dissolve the walls that protect us from our quivering selves.

While perhaps less philosophical, Hensley has come to see her goal as breaking the invisible barrier--called the "fourth wall" in the parlance of the stage--between her audience and her art. It is a simple, profound notion: Theater is storytelling, and stories ought to be shared. "We have to go on people's turf," she says, "and not ask audiences always to come to us. We perform under the circumstances. Everyone is equally lit. Lights can be such a barrier. People who are used to sitting in the dark are usually uncomfortable for the first half hour."

The fourth wall blocks both ways, of course. For actors used to performing before an invisible--and indivisible--mass in the dark, a Ten Thousand Things show can be a bit of a culture shock. Matt Sciple, who has performed in five of Hensley's productions, explains: "There's rules of engagement instead of theater etiquette. Everything becomes part of the show." During a performance of The Unsinkable Molly Brown at the Ramsey County Men's Workhouse, Sciple recalls, a group of prisoners in the gallery were discussing the play's female lead rather loudly. Without breaking out of character, he chastised them. "They were so amazed I was talking to them. They sat for the rest of the play in this hushed silence.

"It's returning acting to play," he continues. "I mean, when Shakespeare did Shakespeare, the crowd would throw things at the actors if they didn't like it....It strips away all the pretension." This too, he explains, has much to do with Hensley. "She's more of a midwife than a director. You can tell she has a young child at home, because she's really patient....She still manages to get you to do exactly what she wants you to, of course."

Organic as it seems, Ten Thousand Things' minimalist aesthetic also springs from a surprisingly involved logic. There is, Hensley explains, an inherent power disparity in most theater. The actors, masked by makeup and the glare of bright lights, are oblivious to the audience, which is all too often pinching itself to stay awake. When the play comes down off its stage and the actors can see the reactions of the audience, the spectacle suddenly becomes accountable to the spectator.

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