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Kira Obolensky and Michelle Hensley in Conversation

Kira Obolensky: So, Michelle, a good place to start our conversation might be for you to tell us about the work you’ve been doing with Ten Thousand Things.

Michelle Hensley: Well, it really all began out of my search for an audience that truly cared about the story. At the time I lived in Los Angeles and I felt like so many theater audiences were there out of obligation. They weren’t hungry for the story—the story didn’t really matter to their lives. I loved The Good Person of Schezwan and I thought people who didn’t have very much money would appreciate that story. So, we went to a homeless shelter to find them. These were also people who had never seen theater before. They proved to be an incredible audience. Once they were reassured they were not being preached or condescended to, they responded with such honesty and heart to the story.

That started it all—for the past twenty years I’ve been trying to bring the big stories of theater to audiences who have never seen theater before because it’s helped me make amazing discoveries about how theater works. It has made me a much better artist than had I followed the conventional path for aspiring directors. That’s why I can’t stop doing it. And I think most people who’ve worked with Ten Thousand Things feel that they’ve become much better artists, too, because of the riches our audiences have to offer, with their hard life experiences, their honesty and their heart—audiences in homeless shelters, prisons, chemical dependency centers. The blessings and challenges of performing for these audiences have made TTT’s work lively, vibrant, and exciting.

Kira: I feel really lucky to be among the local artists who you’ve worked with. I don’t want to sound too evangelical, but I feel like I came to our first project together feeling discouraged about the ways in which conventional theater was reaching its audience, the conversation it was having with them, and wishing for a larger, deeper, more transporting kind of experience in the theater. Working with you on Raskol in 2009 did something profound for me, which was to remind me of the power of the story and to restore a kind of faith and hope in what a play can do. Of course, a play always changes in each performance, it’s ephemeral, but when you move a play to different audiences, you get to see the play through different eyes and contexts; the story itself seems to stretch and reflect the audience, almost like a mirror.

Michelle: The richness of truly diverse audiences! So often when people say, “oh we need to have a diverse audience in the theater” it feels to me that they are coming at it as a chore or a burden. Actually, it is the best thing you can do! It is such a gift to have so many different kinds of people as your audience. It makes everything that much more vital, clear, and profound. I hope that people will keep shifting their thinking from it being a burden or chore to the biggest gift you can have.

Kira: It certainly changed me as a writer.

Michelle: It’s so interesting, Kira, to hear you say you feel so lucky to have worked with Ten Thousand Things, but I feel so lucky to have found such a wonderful playwright living only twelve blocks from my house! For Ten Thousand Things, we need big stories. Stories that any human being from any walk of life could enter into and engage with. We often find ourselves having to go to the classics to find stories that are big enough— Shakespeare, the Greeks, Brecht. But I really so much want to do new plays! In part, because I get so tired of dealing with the misogyny in classic plays. But when I look at the general landscape of so much contemporary playwriting, it feels like so many stories being told are just so small. It’s made me realize that so many plays are written with the assumption that everyone has a cushion of wealth under them. I look at a lot of the plays and realize it’s not going to interest a homeless woman or a guy in prison—stories about a marriage that isn’t quite right, or a career that isn’t satisfying, or a roommate who is “difficult.” I am so happy to have found a playwright who also loves big stories who lives so close to me. It’s really been such a gift! Why do you suppose it’s hard to find big stories in new theater?

In a weird way, I feel like nontraditional audiences are much more comfortable with not knowing the answer than traditional theatergoers. They know life is hard, they know life is complicated and has no easy answers—they know it in their bones. Sometimes people with a cushion of wealth around them like to think they know the answers because life so far has worked out for them.

Portrait of Michelle Hensley.
Michelle Hensley.
Photo by Ten Thousand Things Theater Company.

Kira: I suppose we as playwrights are always trying to figure out how to get our plays produced. What may be happening is that as budgets are shrinking, we see more and more plays that are small in terms of size because of economics. I think that whether it’s conscious or not, there is the sense of trying to write the play that this particular theater with this particular subscription base is going to respond to. That may be part of the shrinking you’re talking about. I know the economics of shrinking inspired me to turn to puppets—a way to evoke a world peopled with more than four humans.

Michelle: I also think part of it too is that contemporary playwrights tend to write about just one class. It’s either an all upper-middle-class family dealing with their problems or career and marriages, or if they write about a lower-class family, in a weird way it’s also written for wealthy people, so that they can broaden their understanding of what it’s like to be poor. There aren’t a lot of stories with lots of people from different classes mixing—it happens in Shakespeare because that was true of Shakespeare’s audience, and it happens with the Greeks because that audience also came from various backgrounds.

Kira: This is what I love about writing for Ten Thousand Things—I feel like I’m also interested in a more epic theater experience. There are also incredibly interesting technical issues that arise in writing a play for Ten Thousand Things. There are no lights, no curtains, all the muscles of the piece are exposed. When I’m writing a play for your theater, I’m thinking of the sweep of humanity and the kind of story, but also the way it’s going to work. What’s exposed and what isn’t exposed. What we get in a Ten Thousand Things show is always a profound reminder of the range of human behavior and that is supported by the transformation of the actor into various roles. The method of telling the story always reinforces the kind of story being told.

Michelle: To explain for all those people not familiar with Ten Thousand Things, everything must be very bare bones, because of all the different cafeterias, gyms, community rooms we perform in. It’s just a circle of chairs, there’s no stage; the least set possible, no lighting. Everything has to come through from the actor’s bodies, their voices, and the story. That’s all we’ve got. And some live sound. So, as a playwright you have to focus in on how the story gets told without much else.

Kira: Yes, and in the logistics of the doubling, the transformations, the ways in which a scene change happens. I remember seeing David Cromer’s Our Town, which everyone was raving about in New York and I was sitting in the audience thinking oh, we do this in Minneapolis all the time. Everyone thought it was so avant-garde to have the lights on, and the audience exposed, and the set so simple and spare. Of course, what it did was to remind us that theater is about exercising our imaginations. There’s something so spare and beautiful and insistent about the use of the imagination in a Ten Thousand Things show that I think creates an incredible audience no matter where you are. Because you are doing what theater is supposed to be doing, which is to engage the collective imagination. If we don’t exercise it, it’s like a muscle, the imagination dies, and I feel like it’s becoming very lax in our culture. Of course the story is always the hook—it’s the collective transporting that happens because of the way you are directing the story that insists upon it. We’re supposed to feel this in the theater and maybe we don’t so often.

Michelle: In addition to telling big stories, the other thing we found really helpful in engaging all our different audiences is to set the story in another time and place. Fairy tales, whether it’s Shakespeare or a musical about the 1920s. Suddenly no one is an expert. When you have a mixed audience of corporate CEOS and homeless people, as we often do at our shelter shows, no one knows better than anyone else what it feels like to be a king or a witch, so we can all participate equally. If we did a play about contemporary urban poverty half of our audience would know much more about it than the other half—or we as artists—do. Plus, they wouldn’t want to watch because they live it every day! It’s too damn painful to reexperience realistically. We need that fairy tale place and time, that sense of distance without being exactly located.

Kira: Absolutely. The more specific you get with time, the more specific you have to get with place. Thorton Wilder writes about this connection between time and place in the theater. The time of the play and the play space are connected. If you release it from specific time and make it timeless, it’s a more active way to engage the things that theater can do. All of my plays exist in this fairytale timeless place. It’s a much more poetic and a less didactic place to live as a writer. A more surprising place.

Michelle: I love how you say that it’s not didactic. That’s a huge tenet of Ten Thousand Things: we can never do plays that preach or offer easy answers—that would be just deadly. I respect my audiences too much to do that. We just want to ask huge questions, and acknowledge that we’re all in it together trying to figure it out and it’s hard. In a weird way, I feel like nontraditional audiences are much more comfortable with not knowing the answer than traditional theatergoers. They know life is hard, they know life is complicated and has no easy answers—they know it in their bones. Sometimes people with a cushion of wealth around them like to think they know the answers because life so far has worked out for them. They don’t like to think of the possibility it might just be temporary. They’re a little more resistant to the question asked without the answer provided.

I wanted to ask you a question. Sometimes when I talk to playwrights I ask them if they ever really imagine who will be in the audience and they seem puzzled or even exasperated. Do you let thinking about the audience enter into your writing? Or does the big story and fairytale setting just allow you to make a play that works for various audiences?

Kira: Not many playwrights have the privilege of seeing that fundamental shift in meaning you get when the context and audience shifts for a play. Once you’ve seen that I think it’s almost impossible to not think of the audience. My imagination is engaged, and hence my empathy. I want to make sure that the play has enough doors in it, enough questions in it to hopefully make it interesting to everyone.

Michelle: There’s a little bit of a taboo about a director claiming she can imagine an audience’s response. But I do try. I do it in big swaths. I’ll think, I bet the women in prison are really going to love this part, or the guys aren’t going to like that character…and—I’m often wrong! Which is great! But I still feel like making an effort to be aware of what might happen is better than not being aware. If you don’t try, you’ll end up unconsciously thinking like the assumed usual audience for theater—the upper middle class. If you try to put yourself in the mindset of other kinds of audiences, sure, you’ll be wrong sometimes, but as a director my main job is being an advocate for the audience and making sure the play is going to be urgent and clear and lively for everyone, as best I can.

Kira: What you’re making me recognize is that whether we know it or not as playwrights, we absorb the audience. It becomes part and parcel of the conversation. For me, writing for Ten Thousand Things has given me a bigger group of people in the audience. And thinking of this much bigger audience allows you to write a bigger play.

Michelle: I feel passionate that a lot of playwrights would be better off if they knew they were going to have the same kind of audience that Shakespeare had.

Kira: I think there are a lot of playwrights who are writing with lots of audiences in mind—but maybe those plays aren’t being produced. Maybe what we’re seeing on many stages has to do with what the theater’s administration’s expectations are for their audiences.

Michelle: I’d love to chat about the idea of having an artistic home. It’s one of the things I’m grappling with at Ten Thousand Things—how do we make this a home for a playwright or two. We have a “home” of sorts for actors—it’s not an ensemble, but a group of actors who work together in various configurations at least once a year, sharing the common experience of performing for all these different audiences lots of times. I’d like for you as a playwright to have that too! Tell me what it would be like if more playwrights could have artistic homes?

Kira: It’s a dream to have a place and a group of people who are committed to the same ideals that you have, who are willing to collaborate with you. It’s an experience that not only enlivens the writer’s life, it also begins to reshape the idea of what regional theater can be or to even rethink what community theater can be. The playwright becomes part of a process that is about marking place and time.

Michelle: And also taking inspiration from the Occupy movement, do we just write plays for the 1 percent or do we start writing stories that will engage the 99 percent? What about the bottom half of that 99 percent! There’s something in the air now that’s making us question all the existing systems and models, some of which really don’t work that well any more. Asking questions about what else could this be—and how could we reshape things. To think about who is in your audience—and who you want to be in your audience—is a really great place to start as theater artist.

Kira: An incredibly exciting time of reinvention for everyone. I feel very lucky to get to work with you and Ten Thousand Things.

Michelle: The feeling is mutual.

Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring voices from in and around the Twin Cities' theatre communities.

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Thanks so much for this Michelle and Kira!
Michelle you continue to be an inspiration
Continue to let your light shine and don't ever give up on what you are finding---its so important!

I have spent years as a faraway fan of Ten Thousand Things. Thanks for this great interview. TTT has been building its own model for years, and i'm glad to see it in the conversation about new work and new visions here on HR.