This Rough Magic

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

Above all, explains Hensley, she wants everyone to share the experience--to "get" theater. "I always imagine my grandfather in the audience. He was an Iowa farmer who lost his land during the Depression--a bright guy with not a lot of education who never had many encounters with culture. Any play I did, I decided, I wouldn't want him to be left out. Sometimes when I imagine him in a theater, I can see him walking out. I imagine him sitting in his overalls at the back of one of our shows. I think he'd understand it and have a good time." She pauses to reflect for a moment. "One thing you get doing this work is humility."

Appropriately, when Hensley directs, her goal is not so much to impose her vision on a play as to act as an advocate for the audience. "The language is complicated, and that's always part of it. I'm always like, 'My God, are people going to get this?' They do, though. When you go to the Guthrie, you maybe get a little smile. When you do Shakespeare in a male prison, the audience gets every sexual innuendo. They just go nuts laughing--big guys in sweatpants tearing up. They see themselves in the play. People's lives are just as wild as anything in Shakespeare."

The Tempest, which will tour local prisons before a brief public showing at the Playwrights' Center next week, is an ambitious choice for Ten Thousand Things precisely because of its wildness. Formless and theatrically dense, Shakespeare's island fantasia has been appropriated by ideologues of every stripe for its apparent political subtext (colonialism, race, and class struggle are all generally read into the play's already substantial list of conflicts). According to Hensley, it was the theme of revenge throwing the world out of joint that attracted her to the play. But, as with all Ten Thousand Things productions, she is not trying to draw any direct connection to the disjointed lives of her audience. "The idea of doing a play about Nineties urban poverty just doesn't appeal to me," she explains. "It's good to have some distance. Theater works best in the imaginative realm."

"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

In this, there is a curious symmetry with Hensley's migratory troupe. Shakespeare's Prospero, whom Canadian critic Northrop Frye once characterized as the prototypical "actor-manager," attempts through arcane study to reconcile the airy muse, symbolized by the spirit Ariel, with the base passions, embodied in the "savage and deformed slave," Caliban. Certainly, Shakespeare's audience would have recognized the magician as a Faustian figure, bending nature to his will. Although Caliban has since been adopted by ideologically inclined directors as a righteous serf struggling under the yoke of his oppressors, it is just as likely that he was intended as a broad parody of the trickster--and even the groundlings themselves, with their fickle passions and volleys of rotten fruit. Yet just as Hensley refuses to categorize her audience sociologically, she also refuses to define Caliban by ideological standards. Above all, she explains, the character should elicit our empathy. "When you start with compassion," she says, "everything else--the black humor, the irony--will come out."

Without wandering too far into the wildwood of theory, it is possible to see in the competing winds of The Tempest a correlative to Hensley's notion of compassionate theater: Prospero, the natural director, is both a conduit for the play's "rough magic" and the cause of its chaos. His struggle, mapped onto the landscape of the island, is between the arcane art--the thought--and the physical world--the act. In the end, he breaks his staff and drowns his book, thereby rejecting the esoterica that separates him from the play's other actors. Addressing the audience in the epilogue, Prospero finally throws up his hands: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, let your indulgence set me free." He has ceded his directorial authority, but has found, perhaps, a sympathetic witness.

In Hensley, too, there is a bit of both Prospero and Ariel. She discusses the play's shifting disharmonies with a confidence that betrays her academic origins: "Revenge corrodes everything. Everyone's struggling to get more power or take power from someone else. Prospero can't really do magic. His power is just that he can convince everyone else he can do it. It's like he can take his will and impose it on the world, and make things the way he wants instead of the way things are."

In the next moment, she nods at the window, where a watery light is filtering into a small and rather bleak garden. "Real magic is just here. There are trees outside. We're still breathing. We're talking. That's enough."

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