Drama Queen

Michelle Hensley brings theater to the people, one shelter at a time

| September / October 2005

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.

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