OLD PLAYS, NEW FORMS, NEW AUDIENCES
When Michelle Hensley started her theater company, she knew she wanted to do something different. Not with the content—she loved ancient Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, and modern classics—but with the audience. She didn’t want to perform solely for wealthy white people. She wanted to make theater for everyone—especially people who didn’t go to theater.
So she changed the form. Michelle founded a theater company that broke all the rules. Ten Thousand Things doesn’t break rules for the sake of innovation. They do so to service their intention to perform for new audiences.
To reach audiences on the outside, they go outside. Ten Thousand Things primarily performs in prisons, homeless shelters, and other places for people who are struggling. Because these venues are not built for theatrical productions, Michelle kept stripping back the sets, the costumes, even the number of actors involved. She threw out the stage. These decisions started as practical choices, but they ended up charting an aesthetic course as well. They helped Michelle bring urgency and intimacy to her work. She was able to focus on the actors and not the frippery of stagecraft.
Ten Thousand Things performs complex plays with accomplished actors in a completely stripped-down format. Actors perform in full light—usually the industrial fluorescents that adorn their venues’ ceilings. Actors and audience members can see each other, close up. They perform in the round, with no stage, just an area on the floor flanked with chairs on all sides. There are no sets to speak of, and little in the way of costume—just enough to create a semblance of fantasy in the very real settings of shelters and soup kitchens.
Michelle is clear: this is not theater as social work. As she puts it, “the reason I want to do theater is I want to connect with an audience, and this work allows me to do it more powerfully and clearly than anything else I do.” Her company starts from the perspective of wanting to make theater for outsider audiences. They think about what their audiences will relate to, what people in the crowd will connect with. And then they make the best theater they can.
Forging relevance with outsiders is a constant push-pull between decreasing and increasing distance between the inside and the outside. On the one hand, you want to acknowledge the distance. The room is distinct. There is magic inside. The artwork has value. The room is worth entering. On the other hand, you want to draw people in, suggesting that the gulf between them and the magic is not so wide. You want to invite them to walk through the door.
Ten Thousand Things makes this push-pull work. They push by working with difficult, ancient plays. They don’t simplify the texts. But the storytelling pulls their audiences in. From Michelle’s perspective, ancient Greek tragedies and Shakespearian comedies are actually more relevant to struggling adults than to traditional upper-class theater audiences. The stakes in these plays are incredibly high. Characters are forced into life or death situations. They gain their freedom, lose their families, and fight for their lives. If you are in prison, or homeless, or hungry, it’s relevant.
Working with ancient plays adds helpful distance to the intensity of the stories told. When Ten Thousand Things tried presenting a contemporary play in a women’s shelter that told the story of a child who was removed from her mother, it felt too real. It was too painful. Women got up and left. But when they performed a fairy tale by Bertolt Brecht telling a similar story, women were able to watch that. They could explore their feelings around loss, protected by the distancing strangeness of the play’s world and words.
At the same time, Ten Thousand Things removes distance in critical ways—most notably by performing without a stage, close up. The actors perform on the same surface where the audience sits, just steps away from them. They perform under bright lights, so the audience sees them and they see the audience. The cast is racially diverse, like the audiences for whom they perform. The actors are right there with the audience, flinging doors wide open.
At Ten Thousand Things performances, audience feedback is constant and unflinching. Actors and audience members look into each other’s eyes and connect—or don’t. People get up and walk away from performances that don’t catch their interest. People lean in and cheer on their favorite characters. People get restless, or excited, and it is all there on their faces for the performers to see and learn from.
Ten Thousand Things’ model has been so successful that they now offer about half the performances of each show to traditional audiences to help subsidize the work they do in nontraditional settings (where no tickets are sold). Theater insiders are often surprised at how much they love the performances. They love connecting intimately with the actors. They happily trade fancy sets and costumes for the powerful, personal experiences offered. The room that Ten Thousand Things pioneered for outsiders welcomes insiders, too. And it happened not by changing content, but by changing form.