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."

 

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."

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.

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."

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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