Drama Queen

Michelle Hensley brings theater to the people, one shelter at a time
Tim Gihring Utne magazine
September / October 2005
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Steve Hendrickson, draped in Elizabethan finery, steps forth and begins to deliver a soliloquy from Measure for Measure. 'Is this her fault or mine? The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?'

He pauses for effect.

'I think it's you, shithead!' shouts an audience member, caught up in the action. Michelle Hensley smiles: another typical night of Shakespeare for her Ten Thousand Things Theater Company. Except that this is no typical theater -- it's a shelter for the homeless in St. Paul, Minnesota.

For more than a dozen years, Ten Thousand Things has performed in Twin Cities shelters, prisons, and other unlikely locations, forging what may be an audience member's first theatrical experience out of nothing more than simple costumes and some of the world's greatest stories. The actors are prepared for anything. And Hensley, who serves as the troupe's artistic director, wouldn't trade the outbursts for a Broadway ovation. 'They don't know the rules of theater,' she says of the typical crowd. 'It's so great.'

Hensley recently received the 2005 Francesca Primus Prize, a $10,000 award given annually by the American Theatre Critics Association to a woman who's made outstanding contributions to theater. Previous recipients have mostly been young experimentalists. But Hensley's stripped-down productions, in which the language does the heavy lifting and the actors engage audiences, tap into what classical theater was always supposed to be: something that allows patrons, whoever they may be, to put themselves in the story.

The results are, well . . . dramatic: Homeless men sob after seeing Shakespeare for the first time; a prisoner professes he couldn't remember the last time he laughed. The arts generally have not been accessible to the indigent and the incarcerated. Hensley shows them it doesn't need to be that way, and some audience members have even been inspired to write their own plays.

Hensley founded the troupe in Los Angeles in 1990 (and soon moved to Minneapolis) after seeing too many shows that failed her Grandfather Test. If she couldn't imagine her grandfather, a Depression-era farmer, enjoying the performance, it wasn't inclusive enough. 'Theater left a lot of people out,' she says. That's when she hit the shelters.

Her company's first performance was at a shelter in Santa Monica, California. 'We were really scared,' she recalls. 'It seemed presumptuous that we would have anything to say to these people who've been in poverty all their lives.' She needn't have worried. Her audiences, more than most, can relate to Shakespearean tragedy. 'They know what it feels like to be hopelessly in love and to want revenge,' says Hensley. 'Their daily lives are betrayal and revenge.'

At a recent performance in a women's prison in suburban Minneapolis, Hensley announces the play: Cyrano de Bergerac. 'It's about a man who has an unusually large body part,' she says, and the inmates hoot. Soon they are captivated. As a villain swaggers out, one warns the protagonist, 'Watch out for him, honey.' And when Christian declares to Cyrano, 'I will be loved for who I am, or not at all,' a chorus of affirmative mm-hmms rises from the audience. When it's all over, the viewers shout bravo and mingle with the thespians. 'I think it's just a blessing,' exclaims an inmate. 'A lot of people here don't even realize this is out there.' Many of the actors, who are among the area's best, say they wouldn't be in theater if they couldn't do shows this rewarding.

'It's the way I can do theater best,' Hensley says, 'and that's all I ever wanted to do.'

Tim Gihring is arts editor for Minnesota Monthly magazine, in which he published a piece about Hensley earlier this year.

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