Michelle Hensley has changed the terms of how we consider theater, how we watch it and react to it. The form of Ten Thousand Things productions — regardless of content — is a result of Hensley's personal will and mission.
In her new book, "All the Lights On," Hensley tells how she grew up in Des Moines, graduated from Princeton and worked in theater in Los Angeles. She brought her vision of producing theater to the Twin Cities and began to take plays to prisons, shelters, community centers and other places where the audiences largely were unfamiliar with the ritual of theater.
Hensley writes her book as a personal story rather than an academic examination. She attends when Ten Thousand Things performs Shakespeare, Rodgers and Hammerstein or Strindberg for unconventional theatergoers and she watches those who are watching the show. Always curious and interested in reactions, Hensley is an enthusiastic learner and she pours that knowledge back into the company.
In recent years, Hensley has exported her style of theater — bare-bones production, audience on all four sides of the action and no stage lights — to New York and California. It's an eye-opener for producers but Hensley has always resisted being labeled as a "social justice" troupe. Her mission is to produce excellent theater that engages an audience, not unlike larger organizations that use the conventional tools of the trade.
"Whenever political message theater tries to be 'serious,' it makes me feel trapped and smaller," she writes. "And I believe, from years of having to work through the initial suspicions and resistance of marginalized people, that most of them feel the same way."
Best practice, she says, is simply to produce shows that are high-quality and find the essence of the play.
"All the Lights On" is Hensley's testament of how theater can reach everyone if barriers are removed. She has accomplished her mission not through theory but constant practice. That message comes through in a personal and passionate way.