Interview: Michelle Hensley brings Ten Thousand Things to life

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Ten Thousand Things is well-known for bringing theater to literally captive audiences in the prison system, at homeless shelters, and at nursing homes. They also play community centers, but the point is it’s a company that brings this art form to folk who can’t go out and see it—in some cases, to people who otherwise would live their entire lives without seeing a play. If Ten Thousand Things gives even one person the idea there’s more to life than a dead-end existence (look what Charles S. Dutton did after serving eight years in prison), they’ve done a great deal of good in making theater something more than an indulgence for the well-heeled. In this catastrophic economy, that is doing a lot.

Michelle Hensley founded Ten Thousand Things and directs most of the productions. William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night will see paid public performances at Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S. in Minneapolis at 8 p.m. on October 24-26 and October 31-November 2. Tickets are $20. For information on free performances, see tenthousandthings.org.

You’re now touring Twelfth Night. Why this script?
Shakespeare tells big stories that all humans can enter into and understand. Twelfth Night looks at the insanity that can take over the brain when you fall in love—causing you to make wrong choices, and, having abandoned reason, ignore any evidence that might suggest you’re making a wrong choice. It’s a universal human experience, which [is something] I always look for [in a play]. Shakespeare’s plays are big, too, because of their huge casts of characters from all economic classes—which mirrors our audiences. But Twelfth Night also, like most of his plays, exists in a fairy tale world where, unlike in a contemporary realistic setting, no one can be an expert. We all have to enter it as equals, no matter what our economic background or life experiences. No one knows any better than any one else what it’s like to be a duke or a knight or a countess, so we all have to drop our “expertise” and just watch the story.

With this [all-female] cast are the love scenes between female lovers, or are women playing male characters?
Women play the male characters in this production. As you know, in Shakespeare’s time, women were not allowed on stage, so it was an all-male cast with men playing the women’s roles. We tried that for Richard III last fall and it worked really well, so we figured there was no reason women couldn’t play the men’s characters. I think we’ve been right. No audiences so far have objected at all. It’s all about suspending your disbelief. And there are so many talented actresses in the Twin Cities who get frustrated about the paucity of roles for them in Shakespeare. It really only seemed fair. Also, in Twelfth Night, as we saw in the all-male version that Mark Rylance brought here from the Globe several years ago, a single sex cast, which is what Shakespeare used, works [especially] well, because it adds an extra layer of gender confusion to a story in which men are playing women who are playing men who are falling in love with men. Or visa versa!

Shakespeare is hard enough for most people to even read. What were some of the challenges in directing it?
Well, reading Shakesepare is much harder than seeing it. It wasn’t meant to be read at all, but high school English teachers don’t seem to understand that, and when they make students read it, they often take away all the joy and turn people off from him. Seeing Shakespeare can also be very hard, because I think directors don’t take seriously enough their number one job of making the story clear. I don’t think Shakespeare paid so much attention to that when he wrote, but we pay lots of attention to it. It’s actually hard work to make the story clear, but we’ve developed some good ways of doing this over the past ten years—this is our eighth Shakespeare production. I just focus on making the story clear, urgent and lively. I don’t worry so much about “a concept” or setting the play in some other historical period to make it more “interesting.” I don’t really think you have to do that with Shakespeare.

How long has Ten Thousand Things been around?
This is my 18th year, and our 15th year of doing it in the Twin Cities.

Has it changed over the years?
It has only changed by doing what we do better, employing better actors, and becoming more and more skilled in how to connect with our audiences—whether they’re first-time theater attendees or veteran theater-goers.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.