When Marcela Lorca became artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theater in 2018, succeeding founding director Michelle Hensley, she had been on staff at the Guthrie for more than 20 years. Born in Chile, trained as a dancer, she came to the United States in the mid-1990s and made a life in theater. A movement director, theater director, choreographer, director of company development, and founding member of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, she worked and taught at theaters and schools around the world.
Lorca left the Guthrie — with its $125 million building, three stages and $28 million budget — to lead a theater with no building, no stages and an $850,000 budget. TTT starts each season with performances in prisons, homeless shelters, senior centers and church basements before moving to Open Book. Sets and costumes are minimal. There’s no proper lighting or sound. The music is a one-man band in a corner, most often resident music director and composer Peter Vitale. But a TTT play can be, and often is, powerful, uplifting and magical.
The last live performance we saw pre-COVID was TTT’s “Thunder Knocking on the Door,” a Black musical about the blues. That was Thursday, March 12. On Friday, March 13, nearly everything had closed or was about to. We’ve been grateful ever since that our final event before the lockdown put us in the same room with Greta Oglesby and T. Mychael Rambo.
“Thunder” opened midway through Lorca’s second year with TTT. It was the fourth production in a row she had directed, coming right after Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale.” TTT has always been exceptionally good at Shakespeare, and Lorca is carrying on that tradition. When we spoke on Tuesday, birds were chirping and singing in the background. “I’m on a screened porch,” Lorca explained. “This is my new office.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: What did your year look like in early March?
Marcela Lorca: I was actually looking forward to having a little break. This spring was going to be a time to research plays, read plays, retreat, and give somebody else a chance to direct a play. We had scheduled [Lauren Yee’s] “The Hatmaker’s Wife” for our spring season, directed by Michelle O’Neill.
And then COVID hit. We went into overdrive, and we are still working really hard all the time. We’ve had to plan, re-plan and play all these different budget and process scenarios. What can we do now, how can we support our artists, keep the work moving forward and reach our partners? How do we best serve? We’re questioning everything we’re doing and what the moment is asking of us. That keeps on shifting.
The reality we’re living in is very hard for everybody. Because of where I come from, I’ve lived through five major earthquakes. I’ve been in areas of catastrophe in times when everything stops. Life might stop for two months. What you do is let go of what you did before, roll up your sleeves, see where the need is and help your neighbor, if you’re able to help. As challenging as those times are, I also recognize them as opportunities to be active and in service.
What’s weird about this time is we can’t come together. COVID is asking us to stay apart. It’s very difficult, yet we have to be disciplined for the safety of those who are most vulnerable. We have to look for opportunities within the structures we’re given and the parameters we need to comply with.
MP: And then George Floyd was killed.
ML: That was something we witnessed in the moment itself, followed by a collective trauma that burst and exposed so much pain, particularly from the Black community. So many years of oppression and injustice. To be in that current of pain and see it traveling through cities across this country and internationally … There’s something very hopeful at the end of it, which is the cry for human rights, for equality and justice. That is alive in people around the globe, and it has been very hopeful to witness.
MP: Do you think George Floyd’s death and what came after will shape Ten Thousand Things? It already seems further along on the social justice scale than some other theaters. A diverse cast is the norm, and you serve a very diverse audience.
ML: We serve populations in correctional facilities where 80 to 90 percent of the audience are people of color. At least 40 percent of our audience overall is people of color. That’s a big number in this state. When I’m casting, I’m very thoughtful of people in certain roles, and what does that mean in the story, within the story, for the viewer? I was thoughtful of that before I joined Ten Thousand Things. It’s never a perfect or exact science.
I have always loved working with a very diverse cast, because there’s such great dynamic energy when people are coming from different cultural backgrounds. I love the complexity it brings to the table, the discussions in the room, and what we can learn from each other’s aesthetics and sensibilities. It’s a richer landscape artistically, besides being a just way to work.
In terms of new things we’re learning now, there’s a call at the national level in the theater world to really look at white supremacist structures in institutions, and to look deeper into anti-racist training. We’re examining and re-examining our organization. We already have an established practice with EDI [equity, diversity, inclusion] tools. We’re constantly doing exercises that challenge us to think of our biases, attitudes and assumptions. Our board is very diverse, our artist core is very diverse, our casts are very diverse.
We just sent a survey to artists we’ve worked with for the last two years, asking them to give us feedback on any practices we have in rehearsal, in performance, and out in the community they feel we can do better at. We’re soliciting suggestions and opinions and opening ourselves up to a deeper learning of what we do, how we do it and how we can do better.
MP: Is Ten Thousand Things financially sound?
ML: We don’t have the overhead other theater companies have in terms of space, costs, rent, and a lot of stuff – instruments and things like that. We’re fortunate that we are stable at the moment. We are being careful.
My first two seasons had done well, and we had great support from our donors, so we were in a strong financial position when COVID hit. I’m very grateful for that. We didn’t do any staff layoffs. We honored our commitments to actors to the end of our contracts, even in the spring season, when we had actors on contract for 10 weeks [for “The Hatmaker’s Wife”].
The sad part is we were ready to launch all kinds of programs and bring people in. We wanted to expand our touring capacities. We were dreaming of more robust regional touring and traveling more around the state. This is definitely not the time for expansion.
COVID is forcing us to just stay grounded. There’s a lot of uncertainty with funding sources. Grants are shifting, foundation funding is shifting. It’s hard to keep up with all the changes. It’s hard to strategize. Uncertainty is the name of the game. We just have to be patient to see what the world will look like months from now, a year from now. We don’t know and we can’t assume. But we’re being cautious and determined at the same time, if that makes sense!
As a young artist, I lived in a dictatorship. Theater was heavily censored. We couldn’t speak our truths. We devised all kinds of dance theater expressions that would pass through censorship but speak very directly to people. One thing I learned is when you have clear parameters, your creativity can be extremely focused, productive and impassioned. Right now, COVID is giving us absolute parameters of what closeness means, what air exchange means, how many days you can be exposed until you get sick. Even if we don’t know everything, we know that much. Within those parameters, as artists we can still do a lot. We may have to change how we do things, but we have a lot of tools at our disposal that allow us to keep creating.
MP: What’s keeping you up at night?
ML: Uncertainty is one thing. The other is this divisive climate, the rhetoric I hear which is so unloving, to put it mildly. And unkind. We’re at a point in history where there’s a lot of violence, a lot of brutality, and a lot of unkind rhetoric. That keeps me up at night. That’s not what I want for the world; I want the exact opposite! The fact that it’s vividly around us makes it extremely important that we ground ourselves and that our work for goodness is empowered, efficient and really strong.
MP: What is your main survival mechanism?
ML: I’m a movement artist first. It’s important for me to stay physically active, to dance, swim, walk, bike, keep breathing and moving. I’m valuing the importance of grounding, which is something I used to teach for many years. If I want to be an effective leader, I need to be grounded.
MP: Can you give us all a couple of tips?
ML: Remember to breathe. Breathing takes many forms. There’s breathing through exercise, pausing and stopping, meditating, slow breathing and singing in the shower. Putting music on and dancing. Looking for small, joyful moments of breath.
MP: I’ve heard that you do something called “dance walking.”
ML: I have great playlists on my phone that are very joyful and rhythmic. [The music] can be anything from world music to funk to Prince – I love Prince – or Sade. Dance walking combines my love for dance and my love of the outdoors. I can be on a trail in the woods, listen to music and dance at the same time. It’s a great workout. I highly recommend it. Sometimes I feel inhibited if people are looking at me. Generally, they’re amused. So I’m also bringing them some joy.
MP: Is there a silver lining anywhere in this time?
ML: Yes. There’s a revealing of truths that may have been hidden and are strongly coming out from all sides. That can be cleansing if goodness wins, if unity wins. If that leads to a historic reckoning, where people from all cultural backgrounds are coming together and clamoring for justice, humanity and the importance of the lives of Black people being respected and cherished, there is a really hopeful message in that.
There’s a history of trauma and hatred in this country, passed on from generation to generation. At this moment, people are standing in this truth and being forced to have uncomfortable conversations. It’s a great opportunity to make steps toward real change. There’s been movement forward already in the arts. The arts are leading the way.
MP: What will you do first when you can do whatever you want?
ML: Wow! Have a big party! If COVID is under control or gone, coming to celebrate each other’s presence around joyful singing would be fabulous. We could do sing-alongs where everybody sings out loud!