Theater for an unlikely audience
A Minnesota troupe brings the timeless humor and complexities of Shakespeare to the homeless, prisoners, and the like.
In a harshly lit classroom, a group of women sling bawdy insults; act out knotty pantomimes of love, death, and sex; and egg on a crowd arranged in a lazy semicircle around the tiled floor. The play is "Twelfth Night," one of Shakespeare's most sublime comedies and one of his most complex.Skip to next paragraph
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But the set is threadbare here at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center, a nonprofit based in southeast Minneapolis. Props are few and well-worn; the music is piped in over tinny speakers. And without an offstage area, the actors – all women, in a twist on the original casting – are forced to change for each scene behind a row of chairs, in clear view of the audience.
It's a scene familiar to Michelle Hensley, the play's earnest director and the founder of local theater group Ten Thousand Things. Nearly two decades ago, Hensley staged her first production of "The Good Person of Szechwan," by famed German playwright Bertolt Brecht, in the cluttered annex of a Santa Monica, Calif., homeless shelter. Later, after moving to Minneapolis, she expanded her scope, stopping in at prisons, youth centers, and retirement communities. The more unlikely the venue, as Hensley recalls it, the better – and the more raucous, the more rewarding for Ten Thousand Things troupes.
"There are so many people who will never cross the threshold into a regular theater, for reasons that have nothing to do with the ticket price," Hensley says. "They worry, for instance, about how to dress or how to behave. We found pretty rapidly that people would tell us, 'I can't believe you'd bother with us. Thank you for making us feel like part of the human community.' It's an amazing intimacy, and one you couldn't get in a normal theater setting."
The Ten Thousand Things model remains something of an anomaly in the theater world – a well-respected organization, staffed by a rotating cast of professional actors, that eschews traditional stages altogether. As a critic for a local paper wrote recently, "It's a delicious irony that to see some of the most skilled theater in the Twin Cities, you must journey to the least prosperous fringes." Ten Thousand Things has a loyal following among theater fans across Minneapolis, and Hensley reserves a limited number of seats at most performances for the general public. She then pipes that money back to the actors' salaries. These days, a Ten Thousand Things role is one of the best-paying gigs in town, only lagging behind one at the marquee Guthrie Theater.
It's a cycle that has produced legions of "very, very loyal fans," says Tom Gau, who has pulled up front-row seats to "Twelfth Night." "I try to catch all the performances, no matter where they are," Mr. Gau says. "They always have the most interesting actors." Gau is not alone – Hensley says that nearly every seat open to the public was sold out shortly after the tour schedule was announced.