On a weekday afternoon, the actors of Ten Thousand Things theater company give their all in a performance of Peter Barnes' play "Red Noses." It's set in 14th-century France during the height of the plague. A religious man is called by God to fight death with laughter, and decides to assemble a comedy troupe.
The play is sometimes bawdy, sometimes hilarious, but the underlying question is a serious one: How best to live this life? And how best to die? An apt question for today's audience. They're residents of Parker Skyview Manor, a public housing residence for seniors on fixed incomes. Ten Thousand Things brings its plays to Parker Skyview for free.
Eunice Stegink has lived at Parker Skyview for 12 years. She and the other residents may be old and short on cash, but that doesn't diminish their desire for challenging, intelligent theater.
"A lot of the people in here have had careers they've had to give up," says Stegink. "There are professors in here -- we've got a math professor from overseas that lives here -- so it's great."
Ten Thousand Things' mission is to take lively, intelligent theater to people with little access to the arts. The company does not have a stage it calls home. Instead, it travels in order to reach people like Stegink.
By the end of its current tour, it will have staged "Red Noses" in homeless shelters, public housing facilities, women's shelters, churches and prisons.
While her productions do offer moments of escape, Artistic Director Michelle Hensley says her audiences are just as interested in grappling with the bigger questions in life.
"We really have the sense, through our performances, that the respect for their intelligence and their imaginations that we give them during a performance is as important and necessary to them as food and clothing and shelter," says Hensley. "I know that's hard for our very materialistic society to believe, and yet the kind of sustenance to your soul that the arts provide, they don't take it for granted."
A few days before Ten Thousand Things visited Parker Skyview, the company performed "Red Noses" at the Dorothy Day Center for the homeless in St. Paul. Dan Bush is currently staying at the Center, and was glad he got a chance to see the play.
"I really liked it," says Bush. "It was a pretty interesting production of it. It was funny; it was a release, a big-time release for just getting out of the norm that's usually here, which is kind of a lull."
Bush says he'd like to see more theater.
John Frazier, known as Trinidad to his friends, slept on the floor of Dorothy Day Center for seven months a while back. He's now moved on to another housing program but he can still be found at Dorothy Day, working with the seniors program. He's known for brewing a great pot of coffee. Frazier appreciates the way Ten Thousand Things approached the audience at the center.
"When they came in here they didn't look at us as homeless people," says Frazier. "Nobody felt uncomfortable or out of place; they enjoyed it. And you had people that work and got jobs and all sitting in there with the audience; it was unique. They need to do more things like that because it does help. It makes a difference."
Frazier says he agrees with Michelle Hensley that art can be as important as food and shelter in hard times.
"Art is an expression of one's inner self, and so if you bring that out, you open the doors for people to express what they feel inside," says Frazier.
It's not just a one-way street. Ten Thousand Things Artistic Director Michelle Hensley says some arts groups view efforts like this as a chore, something they have to do in order to get a grant. But she senses that the unique perspective of her company's audiences has actually shaped its style, improving it over the years.
"The reason we've gone on for so many years is because they've given us so much," says Hensley. "When you realize that your audience will not only have upper- to middle-class educated people but people of different incomes, people from immigrant backgrounds, from prison populations -- it makes you, as an artist, see things differently in how you tell the story."
Hensley says the audience's rich and difficult life experiences compel the artists go deeper in their work. She says she wishes more theater companies were open to such an experience.
"If you really understand how much better it can make your art to have that happen, there might be more commitment to really figuring out some creative solutions to reach out," says Hensley. "I think once people really understand the riches there are to be had, then we might see some more creativity and innovation in that area."
Hensley says she believes the way we treat our poor and our homeless says a lot about our society, and our level of civilization. If society can give the poor a reason to hope for a better future, then society as a whole can, too.