Theater for an unlikely audience

A Minnesota troupe brings the timeless humor and complexities of Shakespeare to the homeless, prisoners, and the like.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Barbara Kingsley (in yellow) of the Ten Thousand Things theater company performs at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul, Minn., which serves the homeless. (: .)
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    Theater in the raw: Ten Thousand Things troupe presents 'Twelfth Night' at the Dorothy Day homeless shelter in St. Paul, Minn.
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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.

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.

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"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.

"People tend to relish how wildly different the performing conditions can be from one day to the next," Hensley says. "The sense that we have nowhere to hide here. There's no backstage. There are no blackouts. It's just the audience and us. It's an incredible level of intimacy."

Watching the seven-woman cast – the 16-some roles in "Twelfth Night" are split between the actors – cavort across the floor, gliding and sweeping in between the scattered props, drawing whoops and titters from the audience, it's easy to forget how absolutely steady Hensley's hand must be. Every production unwinds in uncharted territory, in front of people who have often never watched Shakespeare. (Past Ten Thousand Things ventures have also included plays by Edward Albee and Sophocles, among other historically disparate sources.)

Performing at prisons, particularly, can be a jarring experience, says Kate Eifrig, who plays Sebastian and Viola in "Twelfth Night." And at homeless shelters and community centers, she has heard the occasional jeer; once someone threw up their hands and wandered off, bored or confused. But for the most part, she says, "we're dealing with very archetypal stories. It's something everyone can identify with. Telling a story – isn't that where we all start?"

Barbara Kingsley, a veteran of a handful of Ten Thousand Things tours, says the energy in rooms packed full of first-time theatergoers is enlivening. "You start to notice that there are people who are processing this on different levels, ones you might not have even imagined. We have a habit of expecting something specific from a play and from an audience, and I've had those expectations confounded every time." Kingsley, who takes a wickedly funny turn as the servant Valentine in "Twelfth Night," says there's something liberating in removing "the trappings and padding" of a stage performance. Ten Thousand Things productions are "hard," she adds, but the payoff is unrivaled.

Hieu Nguyen, a local high school student, watches "Twelfth Night" unwind from the second row. Mr. Nguyen takes classes at the center, and when he heard about the performance, he convinced a few friends to come along. "I'm not sure they got all of it," he laughs. "But I thought it was so funny." Nguyen roared with laughter through a particularly vibrant scene involving the drunkard Sir Toby Belch, played with exquisite comic timing by Isabell Monk O'Connor. "It's pretty cool how they can all play so many parts and change around the scenario so quickly," he says.

Reclining at her desk at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center after the performance, Sarah Otis, another local student, says that she wishes she could see more theater. A few months ago, she traveled to Broadway and saw a play; "Twelfth Night" was her second experience with the stage and her first with Shakespeare. "I've always wanted to be a music producer. But now I have a backup idea, in case that doesn't work." The backup? "Acting," Otis smiles.

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