All Things to All People
by Todd Boss, poet
I’m in love with a theater company that presents great theater to non-traditional audiences (in shelters, prisons, and the like). Now, I know what you’re thinking: They’re probably no good. Why else would they troop to prisons? Why else would they have no flashy permanent home to perform in?
Actually, Ten Thousand Things Theater Company (named for the Zen idea that the universe is made up of ten thousand things) is consistently ranked “best” of the Twin Cities by the major critics. The work is heart-stoppingly good. The actors are the best in town. The director, Michelle Hensley, is hands-down one of the city’s most talented. If you have a chance to be in one of their public audiences, I can’t encourage it enough.
Several years ago I arranged to sit in on a prison performance. The audience was mesmerized, moved to tears, inspired to chime in with advice to the actors as the drama unfolded. The play was the broadway musical “Ragtime,” performed by a single pianist and a cast of about six. It’s amazing how little you need!
And that’s the point. Ten Thousand Things was founded more than 15 years ago with the idea that theater is better when everyone is in the audience. Shakespeare knew this, and so does Hensley. A unique electricity happens when audiences don’t know they can’t participate in the play by shouting warnings and instructions to the actors. When great plays are performed in the round, with minimal sets and no lighting effects to distract the audience, a raw theatricality is the result. The contract between viewer and actor is heightened, and that tension is a good actor’s greatest resource.
Ten Thousand Things makes theater on its most fundamental level, where it’s most powerful. Other theaters nationwide are taking notice. Recently New York’s Public Theater, inspired in part by Ten Thousand Things, launched Public Works after drawing on Michelle’s expertise.