Newspaper article

'All the Lights On' Chronicles Ten Thousand Things' Removal of Barriers to the Theater Experience

Newspaper article

'All the Lights On' Chronicles Ten Thousand Things' Removal of Barriers to the Theater Experience

Article excerpt

Theater is changing, and someday, when people study how that happened, they will talk about Ten Thousand Things, a scrappy little Minneapolis theater company that for more than two decades has given away as many tickets as it has sold, staged shows without a stage -- often in homeless shelters and prisons, and discovered the secret to storytelling that appeals to truly wide audiences. Founder and Artistic Director Michelle Hensley has written "All the Lights On: Reimagining Theater With Ten Thousand Things" (Minnesota Historical Society Press), a book that describes the history and vision of her theater company, but it may well be taken as a manifesto for all theater to come: To survive, adapt -- and here's how.

Hensley knew she wanted a life in theater, but she says she came away from graduate school knowing what kind of theater she didn't want to make. She noticed how few people actually attended theater, how homogeneous they were, and how unaffected they seemed by their night out: theater as obligation. She also noticed how many people were left out of this experience she found so moving, instructive and joyful, and decided she would make theater for them.

She founded Ten Thousand Things to prove that you don't need big budgets and elaborate sets to create a deeply affecting performance. She brought theater directly to people who would never be part of the traditional theater audience. She put her actors in the middle of a room full of folding chairs, with all the lights on, and the actors were inspired when they could see the audience reacting -- and the audience reacted more intensely when the barriers between the performers and themselves were dropped. She searched for stories that would touch all audiences.

'Usually, it's humor'

"The balance is shifting. Theater is not going to be able to be keep going if it only relies on stories by and about white men, or 'rich people being awful to each other,' as so many plays are about. We need to find ways to tell stories that appeal to all of us. The divisions are getting so extreme in our society, so it's getting urgent," she said. "Always, the project of Ten Thousand Things is to figure out what we have in common as human beings. Usually, it's humor. Sometimes it's Shakespeare -- but we can't do it the same old way. Often we rely on stories that have some basis in fairy tales. In storytelling, the fairy tale has always been a place where we meet as equals, a common ground, because we all know those stories or stories like them."

Hensley's book describes how she chooses plays and adapts them for diverse audiences, how her actors dissolve discomfort in skeptical or inexperienced audiences, and even how she makes bare- bones budgets stretch to pay for the people and things that matter, forget the rest.

"I hope people will question the usual assumptions about starting a theater. …

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