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Ten Thousand Things: Connecting with communities through imaginative theater

The company tells stories for intimate and often nontraditional audiences, with the lights up and minimal staging.

The Minneapolis theater company Ten Thousand Things performing "The Music Man."
Photo By Paula Keller

We live in an age in which people are continually looking for new ways to connect — through social networks, by supporting projects on Kickstarter, by purchasing food that comes from local farms. The Minneapolis theater company Ten Thousand Things (TTT) has a way of building connection that is both radical and backed by tradition: The company tells stories for intimate and often nontraditional audiences, with the lights up and minimal staging, using the power of communal imagination.

On a blustery February day several weeks ago, TTT performed “The Music Man” at the Ramsey County Correctional Facility. The workhouse is an unassuming building off Century Boulevard in Maplewood, built from Minnesota limestone in 1959, with the painted cinder block and mint-green linoleum hallways of the era. Less familiar to a visitor are the heavy steel gates, metal detectors and armed guards.

In a gym with red and blue padded walls, the cast of “The Music Man” gathered, ran through some scenes, and waited for its audience. A group of about 40 women, all in variations of blue sweats and white T-shirts, filled the seats while chatting. And then, with an incoming rush of the cast, the gym became a train barreling back a century into a tiny Iowa town.

Guest director Lear deBessonet, returning for a third show with TTT, writes in her program notes that “The Music Man” is “a story about characters who have been hardened by life, but who are given a chance to trust again. And it is the story about the redemption of a whole community through the power of imagination.”

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For “The Music Man,” then, connection meant getting to the heart of “Professor” Harold Hill, a con man who arrives in the small town of River City, Iowa, in 1912 with a plan to sell instruments and band uniforms to the townspeople and skip town with the money. Hill instead falls for local librarian Marian Paroo. TTT’s production portrays Hill as culpable for his actions, and explores the impact and reactions of the townspeople.

The physical comedy and cross-dressing drew the biggest laughs. As the mayor’s preening wife, Bradley Greenwald got guffaws for his fancy footwork — and several inmates danced along. The rubber-faced Kimberly Richardson, playing a rough-and-tumble street kid abused by the mayor, received palpable empathy. When the lisping Winthrop, played by Ricardo Vazquez, found his voice and broke out into song, there was laughter and cheering.

Those little redemptions made huge connections with the crowd. Luverne Seifert, a TTT regular who plays the grifter Hill, observes that, “When we perform in prisons, the inmates understand the characters, and understand some of the really tragic things in life.” Production manager Nancy Waldoch adds that, “We work hard to empathize and communicate with each audience on a human level, one of mutual understanding.”

Minimal staging, big imagination

For 23 years, TTT has been creating work with that kind of intimacy and scale. The company’s first production, Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechuan,” was performed in a Los Angeles women’s homeless shelter. Since then, every TTT show — the company has been based in Minneapolis for 21 years — has been performed for traditional theater-going audiences in venues throughout the Twin Cities, as well as for audiences in shelters, prisons, elder-care facilities, high schools, rehab centers and halfway homes.

With all of its performances, TTT takes a distinctly egalitarian approach.

“The actual shows are performed in the same way at every location and for every audience,” says Waldoch. “The controlled variable is the story and our intent to share it as honestly and wholeheartedly as we can.” Public performances of “The Music Man” continue at Open Book in Minneapolis through March 9.

Founder and artistic director Michelle Hensley adds that the drive to perform for nontraditional audiences wasn’t “consciously a social justice thing. The real and immediate impulse was that I just wanted to find audiences that cared about the story; audiences for whom the story we were trying to tell really mattered to their lives.”

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The staging for a TTT show is minimal. The cast sets up two rows of chairs on four sides facing inward to form a “theater” space. Suitcases double as tables and chairs. A hat, overcoat, or scarf suffices for a quick costume change. The cast is always a small group of talented local actors.

“I think, over the years, theaters have accumulated all this stuff they feel they need to have,” says Hensley. “But going back to its roots, theater was done in full light with almost no set and very little in the way of props. What’s fun is that people get surprised by [our staging] — it’s better, in a way, as our staging provides more room for your imagination to really work.”

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Imagination and joy are at the heart of TTT. Plays are selected to provide audiences with, Hensley says, an “imaginative distance on their situation.” Stories with a fantastic or fairy tale element — Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and comedies, musicals — allow for a multitude of experiences while inspiring whole communities though the power of imagination.

“Theater is not a luxury reserved for the wealthy,” says TTT audience member and Twin Cities’ theater enthusiast Scott Pakudaitis. “Theater is about making connections among people through shared experiences.”

Reflecting audiences through casting, storytelling

At a time when some theater institutions are wringing their hands over relevance and shrinking audiences, TTT finds success by bringing theater to people where they are — and by reflecting its audiences through casting. “There is joy in casting people in ways that we aren’t used to seeing them portrayed,” Hensley says, but adds that “most male prisons are 90 percent black, so you don’t want to go in and do a play with an all-white cast.”

Across the country, TTT’s work is having a ripple effect. Three years ago, Hensley directed “Measure for Measure” at The Public Theater in New York City, and the theater adapted her production into its programming. Recently she’s been working in the Bay Area with the California Shakespeare Theater on “Twelfth Night,” and has interest from several other major companies to bring TTT’s work to them. In the Twin Cities, however, TTT has built a model of creative relevance that continues to do the theater canon — and audiences for its stories — justice.

At the conclusion of “The Music Man” performance in the Ramsey County Correctional Facility, the inmates thanked the cast for coming and for the show. Some of the women mentioned they’d seen TTT performances at other workhouses. Some had seen theater elsewhere or had been involved in passion plays. The women lingered around the space as long as they could, until the guards escorted them away.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. 

Carl Atiya Swanson is a Minneapolis writer, actor, and founder of the theater company Savage Umbrella. He’s also the director of movement building at Springboard for the Arts.