An Excerpt from All the Lights On

Reimagining Theater with Ten Thousand Things

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Published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in association with HowlRound.

All the Lights On is a history of the Twin Cities’ theatre company Ten Thousand Things, which for more than twenty years has been bringing intelligent, lively theatre to nontraditional audiences—to prisons and homeless shelters, adult education centers, and rural areas—as well as the general public.

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Steven Epps, Man of La Mancha, women's correctional facility, 2011. Photo by Tom Wallace.

CHAPTER ONE. RADIANCE (The Heart)
That very first chuckle from the audience in the Santa Monica shelter was a tiny burst of treasure that I have been searching ardently for more of ever since. The chuckle was a sign that we as theater artists somehow had emitted something that had touched one homeless woman’s experience of the world; her small breath of laughter had in turn fed us, easing our enormous insecurity that we might fail to touch on anything we had in common. As the performance went on, the audience began to trust us still more, letting down their guard, first murmuring and then talking to the characters; they encouraged the actors to adjust and deepen, and then to reach further out and try for more. The energies that were released and exchanged grew, until at times it seemed like small suns within each of us had been uncovered.

The Pursuit of Radiance
This ineffable feeling of deep exchange with an audience is one I would venture to say most theater practitioners long for yet do not experience as often as they would like in their careers. I’ve just recently thought of a name for these bursts, which come from humans sharing with each other, even for just a moment, their most profound and honest selves: radiance. Radiance is more than just a “connection,” which suggests energy flowing just two ways, back and forth, from actor to audience and back again. Because radiance comes from such a deep place, with minds, hearts, and imaginations all engaged at once, it spills out into the world in all directions, in surprising and unexpected ways. Theater is uniquely suited to create radiance, because of its collective aliveness, because we meet in one space and imagine new worlds together in the moment.

The pursuit of radiance has shaped everything I’ve done at Ten Thousand Things. I loved the first experience of it so much that I wanted to figure out everything else I could possibly do to encourage it. My thirst for radiance came, of course, from wanting people to be blown away by their very first encounter with theater. But it also came from craving the way our work as artists was clarified and deepened by the audiences’ refreshing responses. For many years, I was compelled to sit and watch each and every performance from beginning to end, observing the audience and the actors intently, obsessively, hoping for moments of engagement, basking in them if they happened, writhing in quiet agony if there was confusion or disinterest instead. Every moment got etched into my being, and all the way through each tour I worked on figuring out how we could make it work better.

And, yet, as ineffable as radiance is, I believe that there are many factors that are in fact quite technical that can help to foster it. Going to the “regular” theater, where I very rarely felt this quality, I began to notice so many obstacles and barriers that were put in the way. I began to realize that a lot of what Ten Thousand Things did to increase radiance was simply to remove those obstacles and barriers. If a small sun is hidden in each of us, then a big part of allowing it to shine comes from taking away whatever keeps it hidden.

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Audience at women's correctional facility, The Good Person of Szechwan, 2005. Photo by Paula Keller.

Barriers to Radiance
Many of the barriers to radiance are physical. When we removed them, we did so without really thinking about it. We removed them because we had to. Because Ten Thousand Things goes directly to its audiences, instead of expecting them to come to us, we had to make do without a lot of “necessities.” 

Stages, for example. To reach our audiences, wherever they might be, we created the play so that we only needed a large room and some chairs. Insisting on a stage would have drastically limited the number of places we could perform. Once, early on, we happened to perform in a church space that had a small stage, so we thought we might as well use it. We were doing the seventeenth-century Spanish drama, Life’s A Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. We discovered, oh so painfully, that the distance that stage created between us and the audience, with the actors raised up on a platform, was deadly. The audience of inner-city high school kids was restless and bored with a story that had been riveting to other groups of youth at risk. We realized it was necessary to be on the same level as our audience, just a few feet or, even better, just a few inches away. Certainly never more than three rows back. The distance presented by a stage was just too big an obstacle for us to overcome.

We didn’t bring lighting instruments along, of course; we just turned on whatever fluorescent lights were in the room. Again, we didn’t think much about it; it’s just what we had to do. It wasn’t until about our seventh production that an actress, standing on the sidelines waiting to go on, whispered to me, “I just love how we can see the audience!” I started with surprise—this had never occurred to me before. I was flooded with all the ramifications of this obvious fact. The actors could see the audience all the time, onstage or off, and so could receive every detail of their reactions full force, fine-tuning and adjusting all the while. And of course all those lights explained both my ability to make such detailed observations of the audience and the intensity of my elation and agony—greater, I think, than when a director sits in the back row of a dark house, only able to listen to the audience. Dark houses, we discovered, actually dimmed the intensity of the exchange between audience and actors. We were much better off without them.

Making Things Up Together
We began to see how our inability to have elaborate sets and oodles of props boosted the intensity of our work. Personally, I had always preferred empty stages, with lots of spaces for imagination to fill in; I intuited that this was how theater worked best. But now we were entering places where people were without expectations and used to making do with very little, where the rooms we had to perform in were already very spare—cinderblock walls, linoleum floors, maybe industrial carpeting. As we held up a Hula-Hoop and asked the audience to imagine it was the moon, we could viscerally feel the pleasure they took in the invitation. They would giggle, resisting for a bit, of course, but then take the plunge. We were offering them a chance to exercise the muscles of their imaginations and participate in the creation of an escape from their barren surroundings, at least for a few hours. We were helping them remember that they could still pretend, just like kids do. There is a palpable energy when everyone in a room is making things up together. It most definitely adds to radiance.

Neglected Storytelling
Many of the barriers we concentrated on removing were not physical ones. All the moments where the story wasn’t clear. Or where there was a lack of urgency in what was happening onstage. Or where actors were not reaching out to directly connect with the audience right in front of their noses. Those were moments I could “fix” myself, as a director. Quite honestly, I mostly wanted to eliminate the pain I felt whenever first time audiences didn’t connect, when they became restless, or when it seemed we were actually confirming, even for a moment, their suspicions that theater was boring after all. I didn’t want to have to sit through any more experiences of that. My directing muscles actually got quite a workout, since I had very few tools beyond actors’ bodies, sound, and the text. But any time the story was clear and urgent and lively, I noticed most of the audience leaning forward, so I kept trying everything within my power to make them lean forward all the time.

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H. Adam Harris and Sun Mee Chomet, Dirt Sticks by Kira Obolensky, Avalon School, 2014. Photo by Paula Keller.

Audience Resistance
As we were noticing how certain physical “requirements” for theater actually got in the way, we were also encountering the enormous barriers presented by the initial attitudes of our audience members. We had sort of guessed, but didn’t fully understand until we started, that most people who have never seen theater before really don’t want to see it. So many have picked up the impression that it’s just for rich people, who have college degrees, that it’s boring and hard to understand. The audiences we encounter can be defensive at first, and this sometimes comes off as contempt. I remember one homeless woman who, upon walking into a shelter and seeing our little setup, exclaimed, “I don’t wanna see no Shakespeare shit!” She turned right back around and exited out the door. (We weren’t actually doing Shakespeare that time.) On top of these learned attitudes, there was also usually well-founded suspicion and distrust of strangers who came into their space: so often they were just “do-gooders” who wanted to feel better about themselves by “helping.” As we began almost every show, we had to confront these very thick walls of suspicion, contempt, and indifference head on. As performers, we had no choice but to learn to blast right through it with the only tools we had—honesty, humility, focus, and playfulness. Such attitudes took audiences by surprise. Over all these years, I have come to greatly appreciate the enormous importance of the element of surprise in cracking through people’s barriers. Almost always, after ten minutes or so of strong doses of these unexpected demonstrations of respect towards people who are usually afforded so little of it, the walls started to fall. Radiance would start to seep through.

Now, more than twenty years in, half of the performances we do are for members of the paying public, always in the exact same bare-bones manner in which we perform for our other audiences. I want to be very clear that audiences who pay for their tickets and have seen a lot of theater also put up barriers. Indeed, their attitudes were the very barriers that had moved me to seek other audiences in the first place. Quite honestly, we almost always find that the walls of judgment and critical distance erected by experienced theatergoers are much harder to blast through than anything nontraditional audiences offer. And yet, all the ways we’ve had to shape our theater in order to reach first-time audiences—focus on clarity, urgency, depth, and honesty, with no darkness in which to hide, plus insistence on all imaginations having to work full throttle—all this has also worked to shake up those jaded paying audiences. We surprise them too. Eventually (though it usually takes about thirty minutes instead of ten), we are able to break through the walls put up by people with wealth and watch them begin to allow their own radiance to burst through.

Here, I’d like to highlight the potential for radiance that all people bring with them to the meeting place of the theater. While I truly believe all humans have light inside them, at Ten Thousand Things we’ve noticed over the years that some people just seem to have easier access to this light. With many of our nontraditional audiences, despite all the hardships they’ve experienced, there is not as much “crust” to remove. In a funny way, both Ten Thousand Things actors and nontraditional audiences have a radiance that is perhaps a little closer to the surface than usual. (I’ve also noticed that over time the veteran theatergoers who keep returning to our barebones performances seem to have easier access to that radiance as well.)

The theatrical work we do also attracts a certain kind of artist. It doesn’t really appeal to people who are primarily interested in bolstering their résumés and advancing in their careers. Indeed, many actors have told me that our work provides a welcome relief from those kinds of pressures because it calls on something much more powerful: a desire to reach out for something bigger than oneself, to find a way to connect with other humans who on the surface appear very different. I think the work actually attracts, if I may call them this, radiant artists. Artists with easy access to the honesty, humility, humor, and generosity that are necessary to break through audience barriers.

And our audiences in prisons and shelters, in turn, often bring that same kind of easy access to the radiance in their beings—once we have earned their trust. To be treated with respect for their intelligence, imaginations, and life experiences is rare—and when it actually happens, they permit their radiance to burst through. They have often experienced a long drought of respect, and once they feel it, they are eager to give back in return.        

Of course, every good theater performance in any venue can bring about connections and exchanges between actors and audience. But the extremes of our performance conditions can cause an intensity so strong, a connection that feels so immediate and charged that I think radiance occurs more often. Truthfully, I haven’t experienced a lot of radiance in much theater I’ve attended in buildings where we sit far away in the dark, watching a story unfold on a stage laden with detailed sets that fill in every empty space with every conceivable prop to make things easier on our imaginations. There is radiance sometimes, to be sure—but I think more of it in theater couldn’t hurt.

In the chapters that follow, I want to share in more detail the discoveries we’ve made about what creates more radiant theater. As I talk about these discoveries, I’ll follow a path that roughly corresponds to the way a production is created and born—through the first imaginings of an audience, the choice of a play, the imagining of production values, rehearsing, and performing. I also want to discuss the political consequences of this way of doing theater in the big world, as well as describe the organization that has organically emerged to support this work. I hope simply to spark your own questionings of theater today, and encourage your own reimagining of how else it might be. I hope you will take for yourself anything you find provocative, inspiring, or useful and ignore anything you don’t.

Most of these discoveries were made through absolute necessity. They were made because of the inescapable conditions that come as part of wanting to connect plays to audiences who might find their stories urgent. Indeed, it strikes me that theater is perhaps at its most radiant when everything about it is utterly necessary. When there is nothing that is superfluous. I think of the simple circle of chairs in which we perform, with actors and rings of audience radiating their energies from the center. I see it from an aerial view. While this book is in no way meant to be an argument to urge others to do theater exactly the way we do it, I start to zoom out, getting a view of people pulling up chairs to make other small circles in other places, each generating their own light, dotting the land with small radiant fires. It does seem like something we could use more of.

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I have followed Ten Thousand Things Theatre for a while now on the Internet (I now live in Thailand) and think the way you present plays is fantastic. I want to order the book, but this order form seems to require that I live in a U. S. State. Any way around that? You honestly have no idea how provincial the U.S. Is until you live outside of it.

Respecting your audience's intelligence is so important. I feel like often times the notion that theatre is for a certain class of people is perpetuated without people even thinking about it, especially in educational theatre. Student directors covet the mainstage slot and view smaller-scale black box opportunities as a "backup." Actors don't audition for student-directed shows because they expect to get more out of faculty productions which are chosen, more often than not, for name recognition. When we do these things, we miss out on opportunities to share a powerful, meaningful experience with our audience, and it keeps us from growing as artists.

This is deeply exciting to me, to see what you are doing, and the results. In my small theater here in NYC (which I am closing in July due to high rents and falling income) we have recently started working in the round, on the floor, and putting our audience on the stage. No set, simple lights, and this radiance you speak of becomes possible. The audience is WITH us. I'm so glad you are writing about this and would love to see first hand what you are doing.