Michelle Hensley (photo by Tom Wallace/Star Tribune)

Honored for lifetime achievement at Monday’s Ivey Awards in Minneapolis, Ten Thousand Things theater founder Michelle Hensley used her acceptance speech to make a powerful plea for equity and gender diversity in the leadership of America's theater.

Hensley noted that a number of top jobs are expected to open in the next five or six years. “Most of those positions need to be filled by women, and the majority of those women need to be women of color,” she said.

Women make up some 70 percent of theater audiences at the nation’s largest regional theaters, yet less than 30 percent of the leadership of those institutions. The numbers for women of color in leadership are even more abysmal.

Hensley’s clarion call continues to resonate among Twin Cities theater leaders and artists. We asked several for their response:

Sun Mee Chomet
The actor, writer and director, who was part of two Ivey-winning shows, “Vietgone” and “The Two Kids Who Blow S--- Up,” said Hensley’s speech gave her “motivation to see the importance of my voice as a leader."

“I’m at a point in my life where I want to be on panels and boards. I want to move toward a place of making decisions about seasons and funding that impacts the field so that it’s more hospitable and open to a woman of color like me. Michelle has recognized inequities in the field for a long and has worked to remedy that. Her leadership style is one that encourages others and gives them the opportunities.

"I think part of what makes her appeal so great in this moment is that society seems to be wrapped up in glorifying the individual ego. There is a shrinking away from the larger good into something that's more selfish and egocentric. Women can be those things but women bring a different style and vision to the table. Her call is not about taking anyone’s job. It’s about making the field more vibrant and vital.”

Sarah Rasmussen
Artistic director of the Jungle Theater, she first worked with Hensley about a decade ago.

“I’ve been hearing her ideas about this for at least 15 years. But it’s hitting differently now because this is a time of so much transition in the field, and it cannot look the way it has looked in the past. The numbers are too stark. The inequities are apparent for all to see. Michelle’s such an inspiration because she shows you that you can build your own institution or you can go into an existing structure and remake it.

"Michelle has fundamentally changed our cities and our field. She’s changed the relationship between actors and audience, and the acting style in town as well. Actors who have gone to the combination of church and the gym where her plays land now hunger for that.”

Richard Cook
Artistic director of Park Square Theatre.

“Ours is one of the theaters that Michelle is talking about because it’s obvious that there’s a generational change coming to Park Square. There’s been a lot of board level planning and discussion for guidelines to succession. At the very least, there’s concurrence that there will be female candidates and candidates of color among the finalists.

"I accept the premise that there’s societal and institutional racism that we’ve inherited and are living with day by day within our culture. And there’s gender bias that’s culture wide. You start the discussion by being honest. I’m a working artist, which means I’m an optimist by nature. But we’re the most cynical moment I’ve ever been in my lifetime and I don’t know that human nature is inherently progressive. At the moment, we’re driven by fear, which means that we do strange things. But what Michelle said resonated so deeply because it’s also about our relevance. There will be change one way or another. We’ll either lead it or we’ll disappear and someone else will replace us.”

Joseph Haj
Artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, he made a similar call about succession and diversity in American Theater recently.

“Michelle’s speech was beautiful and moving. Here’s an artist and a leader who’s been in the trenches for three decades working from the center of her vision. Whatever our mission and however we seek to do it, it requires such tenacity and courage.

“The argument that I’ve been making for some years is not about who these boards have to hire but who they have to see as candidates. It doesn’t matter the size or scale of these organizations, their economies are fragile. And these boards all want to make good choices but also safe ones. They want to know they’ll get someone who’s able to protect the organization and move it forward. Often, they see white men as the only people who can deliver. We, as a field, have been suspicious about whether a person of color and/or a woman can do these jobs. And the search for new leaders is a necessarily clandestine one, which has allowed hiring practices to be inequitable.

"There are plenty of searches where the final candidates are all white men. I came from a nearly $3 million organization to a nearly $30 million one. The learning curve is steep. Any new leader is going to consume value before they begin to add value to the organization. But theaters need to be a bit braver in identifying and helping candidates succeed. I know Michelle is calling for outcomes. I’m not sure I see it exactly the same way. It goes back to the Rooney Rule. By requiring that minority candidates be interviewed for coaching jobs, we saw meaningful changes in the NFL. We can see meaningful changes in the theater, especially at such a crucial moment as this.”

More from Hensley's speech

When Hensley relocated to the Twin Cities in 1991 (she started Ten Thousand Things in Los Angeles in the late 1980s), the move was partly to find a place that was more amenable to art but also to rearing a family.

The company hires top talent for minimalist shows that it performs for under-served audiences in jails, shelters, treatment centers and the like. It has built a national model that has been copied in cities across the country, including New York and New Orleans.

Here is an excerpt from Hensley's six-minute address:

When I was a young woman in the 1980s trying to figure out how to be a director, I looked at the theater institutions around me and I pretty quickly figured out that I was not going to fit in them. There were all these weird ladders and hierarchies of power. And all the men in power would throw out these little tests all the time — are you tough enough or commandeering enough?

I just didn’t want to play those games. I just sensed that I was going to have to make my own place where I could live as an artist and work as an artist with my values intact. And I found all these wonderful kindred spirits to come along with me. And I just want to say that now, almost 30 years later, I’m not sure if things have changed that much for women in the artistic field. There have been some great transitions of artistic leadership in the Twin Cities in the past five years. I feel very confident that the transition at Ten Thousand Things in the next year is going be equally awesome.

But we also have some transitions coming up in the next five or six years and I just want to say that most of those positions need to be filled by women, and the majority of those women need to be women of color.

Now, if you hire a woman in charge, you’re not a hundred percent certain what you’re getting. Yes, we have [former Congresswoman] Michele Bachmann and, yes, we have [Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos. When you put a woman in charge, you’re getting someone who thinks differently about hierarchy and power, about wealth and distribution of resources, about relationships, about possibilities for rehearsal schedules. You may get someone who thinks very differently about casting and gender and possibilities for women and the kinds of roles that women can play…

Because who is in charge, and who gets to guide the way we reimagine our institutions, matters. Who’s in charge of choosing the stories that get told and deciding how they will be told matters. And being very clear about just who you’re telling the stories to, and who you want to tell the stories to, and how you’re going to make all of that happen, matters most of all.

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