Drama Queen

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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