Michelle Hensley admits she's been thinking about writing a book for a long time. It took some help from a playwright for the Ten Thousand Things founder to take the next step.
"It took me eight years to really get started. We have Kira Obolensky here for three years as a playwright in residence. She was the person on the other side of the deadline. I finally felt disciplined when I knew was Kira was waiting for it. I would write a chapter every two weeks," Hensley says.
The results of that work, All the Lights On: Reimagining Theater with Ten Thousand Things, is just out from the Minnesota Historical Society Press and Howlround. A celebration for the new book will be held this evening at Open Book in Minneapolis.
"It's really just a way to share the discoveries that we have made about theater over the past 20 odd years," Hensley says. "We've discovered some really great things about how theater works and how it gets better the more inclusive your audiences are, and how you reach those who are not usually included."
Throughout its history, Ten Thousand Things has performed for nontraditional audiences, often presenting its work in prisons, treatment facilities, shelters, and other similar spaces. One of the signature discoveries -- as alluded to in the title, the house lights are always up at Ten Thousand Things shows -- came by necessity.
"We went to places without stages and without stage lighting, Hensley says. "When you can't have a lot of stuff, the blessing is that the actors' and audiences' imaginations work that much harder. The entire experience is that much more enjoyable for everybody. When you have the lights on in the room, the actors can see the audience and the audience in the round gets to watch each other. They learn from each other. It really becomes much more of a community experience than when you are seated in the dark and you can't see the audience that is with you."
The different audiences also push the actors and productions. "When you perform for people who are on the margins of society -- who live their lives at the same extremes as the characters in your plays -- you become a better artist. You have to dig deeper to match the truth that they, the audience, know and experience for themselves. When you are performing for people who have no idea what a play is about and have a lot better things to do with their time than to sit and watch a play, you have to make sure your work is very clear and very urgent," she says.
The approach has begun to catch on, with theaters in New York City and California presenting similar programs. "It feels like it is being transplanted across the country, and that is very exciting," Hensley says.
The book features anecdotes, experiences, and lessons Hensley has learned with Ten Thousand Things. She wrote it not just for theater makers and those interested in the field as a career, but for audiences. "I hope it helps people take a closer look at a whole lot of things that are usually taken for granted," Hensley says.
IF YOU GO:
All the Lights On reception 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, March 9 Open Book 1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis Free For information on the book, visit online.