Ten Thousand Things Theater Company made its reputation performing for audiences that normally don't have access to theater: people in homeless shelters, prisons and community centers. Its new play, "Park and Lake," was created just for them.
It's the story of the staff of a small-town car wash. They live together in an apartment. The cost of housing and food is taken out of their paychecks, leaving barely anything for them to save to get ahead.
The play is written by Kira Obolensky, who is just finishing her three-year residency with Ten Thousand Things.
"Most playwrights, you come up with an idea and you go away to your room and you write the idea, probably with an upper-middle-class audience in your mind because I think playwrights want to get their plays produced," she said. "And working for Ten Thousand Things insists that the opposite happen."
Ten Thousand Things was founded on the belief that classical theater — Shakespeare's plays and the Greek tragedies — was meant for everyone to see. But a great deal of contemporary theater is written for middle-class and wealthy audiences, and deals with issues those people can relate to. Such stories tend to fall flat when performed for prison inmates or the homeless.
For the last three years, Obolensky has been focusing on telling stories that welcome everyone into the audience. "It's been a remarkable, a really changing thing to think about how stories can touch and connect people who are from all aspects of society," she said, "not just people who can pay for their ticket."
Most plays are created in solitude by a single writer with an idea. Not so with "Park and Lake." Co-director and actor Luverne Seifert said that for this play, the actors started by creating their own characters, using a variety of playful exercises. The diverse and comedic cast improvised ridiculous situations.
"And then Kira came in and did this amazing job of taking those characters and putting them in the context of this particular show," he said. The result, he added, was "just mindblowing ... so exciting."
"Park and Lake" is at times epic and often absurd. There's an octopus that lives in the plumbing, and a human organ that goes missing. There's a character who loves taxidermy, and another who's an heir to a doughnut fortune. One actor plays two sisters — and there's a scene in which those are the only two characters on stage.
All of the characters have big dreams. At heart, Seifert said, it's a story about people standing up for themselves and creating something beautiful together. He said that's an idea anybody can respond to.
"I mean, at the women's prison it was amazing," he said. "They were chanting, 'Give it to the workers! Give it to the workers!' They were singing the theme song of 'Park and Lake.' It was just an extraordinary experience, and I think when Kira writes, that's who she has in mind."
"Park and Lake" runs this weekend and next at Open Book in Minneapolis. It then moves to St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis for performances March 9.