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Ten Thousand Things knows a thing or two about captive audiences

Mark Nelson during a performance of "Red Noses."
Courtesy of Ten Thousand Things
Mark Nelson during a performance of “Red Noses.”

The first time I saw the inside of a prison was when I was a skinny college freshman and a member of a mixed-voice singing group invited to perform at the military penitentiary in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

We killed them — especially when we opened the show with a cheerful singing of “Consider Yourself at Home” from “Oliver!” I recall that the inmates were particularly amused by lyrics like “Consider yourself well in” and “Consider yourself part of the furniture.” Little did I know that less than five years after that performance the Army would turn me into a prison guard and that one of my assignments would be to work in that same dreary, fortress-like lockup.

Performing for a captive audience has its memorable moments. Michelle Hensley, founder of Ten Thousand Things, vividly remembers one of her theater company’s first jail shows back in the early 1990s.

Recalls Hensley: “We were carrying in our stuff when this bored-sounding voice came over the P.A. system, saying, ‘There’s a play being performed in the cafeteria. You can go see it or you can stay in your cell.’ “

A compelling reason to attend theater, in other words. In 15 years, Ten Thousand Things has performed in prisons and jails, homeless shelters, and housing projects — and most of us have never seen those particular presentations. But they also give so-called “public” performances for conventional paying patrons and the critical reaction over the years has been pretty extraordinary.

Productions by Ten Thousand Things routinely show up on the usual year-end “best-of” and “outstanding” lists — especially if those lists have a small-theater category. You can’t get much smaller than this outfit, and that’s by design.

The company has no theater venue of its own, no lighting systems, and little in the way of a prop shop, since its performances often don’t take place on a stage. There’s little or no scenery to hide behind, and the audiences sometimes sit so close to the performing area that the actors have to be careful not to trip over some patron’s feet.

A draw for best actors in the area

Nevertheless, some of the best actors in the area take breaks from working at places like the Guthrie Theater to participate in Ten Thousand Things productions. Why do they do it? The reasons, artistic and otherwise, probably vary — though Hensley places a lot of emphasis on the uniqueness of the company’s target audiences.

“I think our actors like how the audience is different for every show and that they’re right there in front of you instead of out in the dark theater,” she said. “The connection with them is very direct. If they don’t like what you’re doing or they’re bored or disengaged, they tell you right away.”

Another reason is the work, of course. It’s been said that the theater is one of the few places where you can hold up a sheet of paper and tell the audience that it’s an elephant. If you do it right, that sheet of paper isn’t just an elephant — it’s the image of all the elephants that have ever been or ever will be. Ten Thousand Things traffics in this kind of elemental, abstract imagery, especially when it plays with the great literature of the theater.

Check out a video about the theater and its history here.

Hensley, who came to the Twin Cities after schooling at Princeton and UCLA, initially got hooked on performing in non-traditional venues after she staged an adaptation of Brecht’s “Good Person of Setzuan” at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica.

“Ever since then I’ve been on a journey to connect the big stories of theater — eternal human struggles — with people who have never seen theater before,” she explained.

There were plenty of potential audience members in California, but not many life resources for a non-traditional theater artist, Hensley added. “I also had a child, so I needed a city where I could afford a house — this was in 1993 — could use public schools and be part of a substantial theater community, and those requirements narrowed the list down.”

Her settling in the Twin Cities has been good for her and for this theater town. The company’s 15th season doesn’t open until October, but it’s something to anticipate. Here are some details:

The all-female cast of "Twelfth Night"
Courtesy of Ten Thousand Things
The all-female cast of “Twelfth Night.”

“Twelfth Night,” opening Oct. 2 at Open Book. After putting on an all-male version of “Richard III” last season, a counterpart is being offered in an all-female version of Shakespeare’s gender-confused comedy. The cast includes some familiar faces: Sally Wingert, Kate Eifrig, Sonja Parks, Barbara Kingsley and Maggie Chestovich.

“Endgame,” opening Feb. 12, also at Open Book. Actors seen frequently at Penumbra Theatre — Terry Bellamy, James Williams, Steve Hendrickson and director Marion McClinton — take on Beckett’s play about the agony of waiting to depart.

• “Raskol,” opening April 23 at the Minnesota Opera Center. Minneapolis playwright Kim Obolensky has been commissioned to create a new play — a jazz musical, of all things — based on Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” The theater’s resident composer, Peter Vitale, is working with several local jazz musicians on a score that will be partly written, partly improvised.

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