Michelle Hensley brings theater to the people

Ten Thousand Things Theater
Ten Thousand Things Theater Company's founder and artistic director Michelle Hensley photographed Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 at her Minneapolis home. She helps bring professional theater to people who might otherwise have little access to the arts.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

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MINNEAPOLIS — Michelle Hensley is the artistic director of Ten Thousand Things, a theater company that brings its shows to prisons, homeless shelters and rehab centers.

The company recently performed William Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" to a group of incarcerated men in a gym at Hennepin County Corrections. The play looks at what happens when power is bestowed upon someone who relishes it a bit too much.

Photo gallery: Michelle Hensley's Ten Thousand Things Theater

For inmate Rodney A. — whose last name has been withheld by Hennepin County Corrections — it's a familiar scenario. The story made him think of how some of the corrections officers, or COs, wield their authority.

"Some CO's might take it like you're out of bounds, but you know what, just don't do it again, other CO's will be more anal about it and write you up and next thing you know you're in the hole so — it's everyday life here with that same situation," Rodney said.

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Rodney and his fellow inmates have been looking forward to seeing this show for over a month. Derrell S. said the production provided a welcome escape from his present reality.

"It's just looking at three walls and a set of bars — it's noisy, not very peaceful — coming here and being brought into a different world — Shakespeare's world — and being able to enjoy it in front of a bunch of good actors," Derrell said.

People like Rodney and Derrell make up the core audience for Ten Thousand Things productions. Artistic Director Michelle Hensley actually believes everyone has the right to great theater.

"That's my passion — I want everybody — everyone should have access to theater," Hensley said. "It's a right and sometimes it is as important to get respect for your intelligence, your imagination, your life experiences, as it is to get a meal for the day. Or at least that is also profoundly important and in rare supply in people's lives."

And yet Hensley insists that while she's been delivering her plays to under-served audiences for more than 20 years now, she does it for primarily selfish reasons.

"Performing for audiences who have never seen theater before or very little of it makes us better artists," Hensley said. "There is a real selfish component to it. We learn that we have to dig deeper because their life experiences match those of the characters in the plays. They live their lives at the extremes of human existence — many of them do — so that requires us to be accountable as artists, to match that."

A TALENTED COMPANY

As a result, Ten Thousand Things regularly attracts some of the best talent in the Twin Cities. Sonja Parks has starred in many shows: Ismene in a production of Antigone, Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac, and Sun Te in Good Person of Szechuan. In "Measure for Measure" she plays the part of Isabela, the pious sister to Claudio who is asked to give up her virginity in order to save her brother's life.

At an afternoon performance at Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, Parks plays to an audience made of up of both homeless people and high school students. Parks said she keeps coming back to work with Ten Thousand Things in part because of its non-traditional audiences.

"It takes theater outside of the box and outside some of the preciousness that I think surrounds theater," Parks said. "It takes classical stories and places them in a very present day setting, which is something theater companies do but then they want you to come and behave by their rules. And Ten Thousand Things says you behave any way you want to — welcome!"

Parks also knows that in working with Ten Thousand Things there's a good chance she'll get to play a strong female part, even if it's a Shakespeare character traditionally cast as a man.

"For instance in this show 'Measure for Measure,' the Duke is a woman," Parks said. "She's very adamant that women have strong powerful leader voices and that they're not just delicate flowers that fade into the background. And I love that."

Creating strong roles for women is part of an overall aesthetic at Ten Thousand Things that has helped it garner numerous rave reviews.

A NATIONAL MODEL

And Hensley's formula for creating theater — take a compelling story and strip it to its bare essence, give it a talented diverse cast and then bring it to the people, rather than waiting for them to show up — has earned her national attention.

"[Hensley's] part of the infrastructure of the network for helping people in Minnesota."

Oskar Eustis is the artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, which has asked her to help them create a similar touring program. Eustis said there are lots of theater projects that happen in prisons, but none with Hensley's sense of artistic integrity.

"She is trying to reach the most neglected, most despised, most oppressed, least privileged members of our population, and say that this art belongs to them and has something for them," Eustis said. "The intensity and singularity of that focus is, I think, commendable."

Also, Eustis said Hensley's ferocious dedication to her audiences over the past 20 years, combined with the financial sustainability of her theater company, is rare.

"There is nothing random or fly by night or opportunistic about how she approaches this," he said. "This is something that the audiences and the institutions that she works with know they can count on. She's part of the infrastructure of the network for helping people in Minnesota, and it's that, frankly, which I most hope to emulate. The fact that we don't show up and then vanish the next funding cycle, but that we're there year in and year out doing the work."

In an era when many arts organizations are struggling to diversify their audiences, Hensley has managed to create a theater model in which everyone is represented on stage, and in the audience. In her mind, it's what the world deserves.

"Beyond deserving it, it makes us all better," Hensley said. "If you put everybody in your audience, suddenly your art form is better and we are all richer as human beings because we are all dealing with each other."

Hensley said she knows a lot of theater companies think of diversity as a kind of chore, but she finds it's just the opposite. It's a joy and a blessing, she said, and a rich source of discovery and inspiration.

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