When Michelle Hensley completed the graduate directing program at UCLA, she was bummed out by three things: Most theater was made for rich white people. Some people attend plays out of obligation, not desire. And she was going to have to jump through a lot of hoops created by men.
So she decided to change all of those things.
It began at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica, Calif., when Hensley and friends staged Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan.” She says the residents “started shouting advice to the characters, which was amazing. One man — we hadn’t anticipated this — was struggling with mental illness and he came up on stage and shouted at the actors.”
Hensley knew she was on to something.
In the 29 years since, the Twin Cities director has taken theater where it’s never been — detox units, correctional facilities, women’s shelters — while shaping her troupe Ten Thousand Things into a national leader.
She’s reframed classics by the likes of Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett to provide more opportunities for people of color and women. She’s campaigned for fair wages for artists, championed the hiring of women in arts leadership roles and established family-friendly rehearsal schedules.
This week she completes the circle by returning to “Szechwan” in her final act before Guthrie veteran Marcela Lorca takes over as TTT’s artistic director.
Like almost every play Hensley has produced since moving to Minneapolis in 1993 with her daughter, Molly, it will be staged in a rectangular playing space, surrounded by chairs, with all the lights on.
“You see the backs of some people, so you look at it through the eyes of the characters who can see that person’s face,” says Hensley in the southeast Minneapolis home she shares with partner Bill Simenson. “And you watch it through the eyes of the other audience members.
“There is always at least one excruciating performance, even to this day, where it doesn’t connect with the audience, but I’ve come to accept that that’s part of doing this kind of theater.”
Hensley has turned down offers to direct elsewhere because she discovered that the TTT way of making theater is the only way that interests her as a director. The work earned her a lifetime achievement Ivey Award and she has taught its methods across the country, including at New York’s Public Theater (she may visit a theater in India that is giving it a go).
One insight that continues to inform Hensley’s work came from her first directing job, on a project led by theatrical titan Robert Woodruff.
“What I loved was people would ask him a question and he’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ then walk over to the assistant stage manager and ask what he thought,” she recalls. “The freedom to say ‘I don’t know’ and use the energy in the room to figure out the best answer, that’s why I want to do theater.”
Hensley plans to say “I don’t know” often in the next several months as she plots her next move. Having answered many of her questions about theater, she is preparing to move onto new questions.
“I’ll be turning 60 in June, so the number of years where I have a very active brain and body are more and more limited,” she says. “Our world is not in an awesome place right now and some questions have occurred to me that I would like to take some time and see if I can make headway.”
If anyone can make headway, say her collaborators, it’s the woman who bends natural disasters to her will.
Who is Michelle Hensley?
Kira Obolensky (playwright): We were in North Carolina, with some of the other staff, at Peter Vitale and his husband’s house. And Hurricane Sandy came in. So, we’re like, “S---, they’re starting to shut down the freeway and the airport.” People started getting on their phones to try to change their tickets but they’re all told, “You can’t get out. The airport is shutting down.” Brick wall, one after the other. Then Michelle gets on the phone and, somehow, she gets us out. It was like magic. So she’s a person who can get you out of a hurricane.
Kathy Graves (publicist): I went to Hennepin County men’s prison the first time with a show and I said, “Michelle, I’ve never been in prison before,” but it doesn’t faze her. She’ll say, “Sit here, sit there, sit there.” She tells everyone exactly what to do. Prisoners, too. The guards just stand back.
Peter Vitale (composer/sound): She gestures a lot with her coffee. And it spills.
Sun Mee Chomet (actor): When she doesn’t like something you do, she says, “Let me just sleep on that.” You basically know it’s going to get cut.
Thomasina Petrus (actor): She puts her glasses up and down when she’s thinking. If you watch the glasses, you can sense where she’s going even before she gives you a direction. Glassography, I call it.
Chomet: A mantra Michelle initiates you into Ten Thousand Things with is, “Life is always more important than art.” You go into a show at Dorothy Day [shelter] and people may need to answer a phone call or get a meal and that’s just more important than what we’re doing. Whoever joins us for however long they’re able to, that’s great.
Tracey Maloney (actor): Her rehearsals are a lot of daytime hours, for people who have kids, and she pays so well. You’ll be in her dining room and she’s writing out checks to you.
Molly Hensley-Clancy (daughter): My mom says sometimes that Ten Thousand Things was her second kid. I kind of feel like I grew up with it. Maybe sometimes in a sibling-rivalry way, but it got more mature as I did. When I was a kid, I was in the shows and [TTT] was a little more wild and less organized, but it was the coolest experience to grow up alongside it. I was desperate to go to rehearsals and hang out with the actors.
Obolensky: We watched the  election returns together and I’m a wreck, but she very firmly turned to me and said, “Pull it together. This is going to be fine.” And it’s Michelle, so you believe it. But her daughter, Molly, was working at the BuzzFeed election desk that night and she started texting her mom: “Brace yourself. This isn’t good.” And I watched her fierce optimism just disappear — it was excruciating. By night’s end, we were in tears. But I have to say, even as we were watching those returns, part of me was thinking, “She got us out of Hurricane Sandy. Maybe she can make all of this go away.”
Graves: Everybody thinks of her as saintly and Ms. Social Justice. At [a theater roast], Joseph Scrimshaw introduced Michelle and said something like, “Word has it her tears can heal the broken wings of a baby bird.” And she laughed about it. She knows she has this reputation.
Nancy Waldoch (production manager): She could tell I was struggling, working as a contractor, and she said, “Would you like to have a paycheck once a month? If we spread that out over 12 months, you will know you always have a paycheck coming in.” She just takes care of people.
Karen Wiese-Thompson (actor): During “Henry IV,” three of us had aging parents we were caring for and we all needed to take our mom to the urologist or our dad to the heart doctor. She worked around it. And as each of us lost that parent, she and the whole company were like, “Here’s a book,” “Here’s a bag of yarn,” “Here’s some food.” It’s such a supportive room.
Obolensky: Saint Michelle? No. She’s a human being. She swears. She uses the f-bomb, probably too often. She’s really fun to be with, too. Like a brisk wind. One of my favorite Michelle things is hearing her deep, throaty laugh. She is really smart, but you can also have a lot of mimosas with this chick.
The power of ‘I don’t know’
Luverne Seifert (actor/director): It feels like a challenge. It’s “I don’t know, but I do know, really, and I want you to come up with something better that I haven’t thought of.”
Chomet: It’s “what’s the best way to tell this story? We don’t know, but we’re going to figure it out together as a group.” I think it’s so humble and honest.
Wiese-Thompson: It can be disconcerting when it comes down to the wire.
Petrus: At other theaters, they may discuss characters a lot, but even if it’s a big yard, there’s still a fence around it. Michelle is more a pasture director: “You go out there in the grass, and if you get too far away, Nancy [Waldoch] will pull you back. Don’t worry.” We’re grass-fed actors with Michelle.
Vitale: What she does know from the very beginning, and I don’t know if this is always true of directors, is exactly why she is doing this specific play.
Wiese-Thompson: The first week of rehearsal [at other theaters], you block the entire show. But Michelle does the first third of the show the first week and you don’t touch anything else. Then you go on to the next third and you work it and work it. Then you go on to the next third. The first couple shows, I was like, “This doesn’t seem logical because by the time you get to work on the end of the show, you only have three days left.” But the way you build the beginning of the show informs so much how you create the rest.
Seifert: Playing Edmund in “King Lear,” I was struggling with his bastard speech, trying to understand why he was feeling like a second-class citizen. She kept pushing the idea that I had to go deeper. And it was not until the first performance at the men’s prison that I remember looking out at the prisoners, seeing their heads nodding, and I thought, “Oh, now I get it.” All of a sudden you understand what it’s like to be judged.
Obolensky: She is technically astonishing. I don’t think that’s appreciated enough. Think about it: There are no lights to help audiences focus. But she is a master. It’s timing, it’s spatial, it’s where the eye is landing, it’s positioning people, it’s which actor turns their head when, it’s how you use sound.
Hensley-Clancy: Who she is as a director is who she is as a mom: creative, fierce, compassionate and very caring. … I was an only child, so she was often the “other kid” playing with me, playing the witch in my games. She’s not an amazing actress, but she was great at getting on my level and playing wild, silly games.
Believing in artists
Maloney: All of a sudden, we’re leading workshops when we’ve never done stuff like that. I’m creating curriculum and teaching prisoners because Michelle thought that would be a good idea for me.
Vitale: She will find the least-trained singer who auditions for a musical and say, “I want him.” And I’m like, “Omigod, him?” But she’ll be, “He’ll be fine.” And he is.
Obolensky: I could just taste how good [“Forget Me Not When Far Away,” based on an Odon von Horvath play] could be, so I gave the Horvath to her. We’re sitting in her dining room and she has that Michelle look on her face, like, “Tell me what it is you want to do with this hateful, death-focused, misogynistic rag?” And I was like, “It has all these interesting questions.” To her credit, she said, “Well, I see that. I hate this play but I am interested to see what you do with it.”
Maloney: After Desdemona [in “Othello”], which was great but difficult, she full-on told me, “I’m going to put you in ‘Man of La Mancha’ as a prison guard because you need to do that. You’re small and blond and people don’t think of you in a powerful way, so let’s make you in charge.”
Theater of change
Obolensky: I don’t think her impulse [in founding TTT] was small: “I’m going to have a little theater company.” I think it connects, in a really big way, to what people suspect about theater: that stories that are witnessed collectively have tremendous power, that imagining in a room together — with the lights all on — can have a tremendous power.
Hensley-Clancy (on what her mother plans next): She seriously won’t tell me, either. Like with the theater company, it might raise eyebrows at first but she doesn’t care if people think what she’s doing is different or unusual. I’m really excited to see it.
Wiese-Thompson: I love that we get to do all of this because Michelle wanted to tell a story to some people who she thought would want to hear it.