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ISSUE 120 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/16/2007

Director brings theatre company to unexpected venues

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor

Friday, March 16, 2007

When one thinks of theater, the Guthrie, London's West End or St. Olaf's own Kelsey Theatre come to mind. Michelle Hensley, however, believes that theater can appeal to a much wider audience, an audience not likely to be seen in the lobby of a high-end theater house.

Fifteen years ago, she started the Ten Thousand Things (TTT) Theatre Company, a company consisting of professional actors who bring plays to homeless shelters, prisons and soup kitchens.

“As the director, I focus on telling the story as clearly as I can,” Hensley said to a St. Olaf drama seminar class. “I try to think of plays that will engage everyone.” In its 15-year history, TTT has produced such works as “The Good Person of Szechwan,” Shakespeare's “Measure for Measure” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Hensley sees the larger themes that run through the works – themes such as betrayal, love and greed – as meaningful to people from all walks of life.

Hensley explained how many professional actors find TTT daunting – TTT uses no lights, no stage and minimal props, focusing instead on strong acting and the relationships that theater forges. “I try to remove all barriers,” she said about the lack of stages and bright lights. Instead, her audiences sit in chairs around the action, sometimes less than six feet from the actors themselves, sharing in a common event with people from different walks of life. “We're all there participating in a life performance,” Hensley said. “There is a pleasure in finding things in common with people you thought you would never connect with.”

Actors new to TTT are also surprised when the audience talks back to them during the play. Members of the audience quite often respond to the action on the stage with cheers, boos and cries of “you tell 'em, girl!” or “get outta there!” While some may find comments rude or uncouth, Hensley thinks they help to build a more dynamic environment for the actors, creating what she calls a “riot of emotion.”

Professional actors are eager to be involved with TTT, and Hensley is eager to recruit polished performers. She aims for each production to be the best it can be, regardless of how “theater-literate” the audience. “If you're taking people to their first theater experience, you want it to be really great,” she said. The quality of the actors who work with the company allow her to use minimal sets, few props, no stage, no special lights and no official theater building.

Actors have told Hensley that working with her company has improved their craft and their ability to connect with characters they portray. “When audiences are honest with you, you as an actor can be honest with them,” Hensley said.

While she loves each audience for which her company performs, Hensley's favorite audiences are the women's prisons. She appreciates their communal aspect, saying that “they make community wherever they may be.”

For many years, Hensley was hesitant to include musicals in the TTT schedule for fear that they would be too “cheesy.” Musicals such as “Ragtime” turned out to be huge successes for their audiences, due in part to the universal nature of music. “Music pulls people together,” she said. “No doubt [musicals] are powerful when you do them honestly.”

Through her work with TTT, Hensley has come to question the common belief that theater is a pastime reserved for those in the upper echelons of society. “The people we perform for live at the extreme edges of humanity,” she said. Hensley knows first-hand that her audience members have asked themselves the hard questions in life, the questions that many plays tackle head-on.

Above all, Hensley wants TTT to reach out to people who are, as she said, “hungry for honesty and immediacy.” The live exchange between audience members and actors provides a unique experience of rich, raw theater that people who find themselves in hard situations can fully appreciate. “They want nothing more than to have their humanity recognized,” Hensley said. “The play lets them do that.”

For more information about upcoming performances and TTT theater company, visit their website at

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