“And it was a great experience because instead of just being a play that we put on, we were building a community around these kids.” – Adele Nadine Traub, I AM THEATRE
There is something astonishingly powerful that happens when you bring people who have never experienced theater before, most often, low-income people, into a world that takes theater for granted. And you don’t have to create the play WITH them — at my theater company, Ten Thousand Things, we just make sure they are in the audience. We have found the only way to be sure they ARE in the audience is to go to where they are, instead of expecting them to come to us. So we take Shakespeare, and Greek tragedy, and Brecht to people in prisons and homeless shelters and housing projects. We find that the wealth of life experience these audiences brings matches the wealth of artistic experience our artists — the best theater artists in the Twin Cities! — bring, and the exchange is electric. Our audiences demand that we be absolutely clear and absolutely urgent in everything we do. To honor their life experiences, their intelligence and their imaginations, we all, as artists, find ourselves digging into the depths of our souls to find the truth that speaks to all of us. We perform in a circle of folding chairs, with all the lights on in the room, so everyone can always see each other. We find that in the act of theatrical performance itself, we create human community, because everyone has to step outside themselves to connect.
Who do you imagine being in your audience when you create your work? How would it change what you do if you imagined the whole spectrum of humanity watching?
If you look at the season of plays you’ve chosen — do you really think they would interest people who do not have a cushion of wealth under them? Can you find plays to do that really do speak to the 100%? Do you want to?
Why is it so impossibly hard for most Americans — let’s say the 80%, if not the 99% — to imagine themselves stepping into a theater? What are the HUGE barriers at the entrance to most any theater building that we as professionals, still don’t seem to be able to see?
Do you REALLY want to include everyone in your audience? Do you truly believe it could make your artistic work better?
Michelle Hensley is the founder and artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theater Company. A graduate of Princeton University, with an M.F.A in Directing from UCLA, she has directed and produced nearly fifty award-winning tours to low-income audiences. She has twice been City Pages Theater Artist of the Year, twice been named Best Director by City Pages and Minnesota Monthly, and has won the Francesca Primus Prize, an annual award for an outstanding female director or playwright, bestowed by the American Theater Critics’ Association. She currently serves on the board of directors for Theater Communications Group.