For Michelle Hensley, the closing act of her theater career is more predictable than the beginning.
Ten Thousand Things, the itinerant troupe she founded in Los Angeles in 1989 with $500 and a prayer before growing it and moving to the Twin Cities in 1993, announced last week that Hensley will step down as artistic director at the end of the 2017-18 season.
In her quarter-century run in Minnesota, Hensley has taken dramas, musicals and comedies to underserved or even captive audiences, in shelters, community centers and prisons. Ten Thousand Things also pioneered an operating style — paying good wages to top-notch actors while cutting costs by keeping designs minimal — now practiced by at least eight companies nationwide.
Born in Des Moines to a lawyer father and an activist mother, Hensley was educated at Princeton and the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied directing. We talked with Hensley, 58, about her work, her plans and the company’s future.
Q: Can you walk us back to the beginnings of Ten Thousand Things?
A: Well, in 1989, I was living in L.A., and at the time, people there were not really interested in theater. I don’t know if that’s changed, but a lot of people who do theater or attend shows there do it out of a sense of obligation and duty. They’re trying to please agents, directors, somebody. So a group of us who really loved theater wanted to try something. We didn’t know it would be something with long legs.
Q: Tell us about that first show.
A: We got $500 together and did a production of “The Good Person of Szechwan.” We took it to a homeless shelter in Santa Monica, and I’ll never forget this, it got such a great, hungry response. And we knew we had something. I learned to write a budget and raise money because I had to pay my friends. The next year, the budget increased tenfold, to $5,000. There was a janitor at one of those shows who said, “Thank you for treating us like we got brains.”
Q: You moved the company to Minnesota in 1993. Why?
A: Well, I was a new mother. We looked around and realized that L.A. was a very hard place to raise a child. We chose the Twin Cities because we could afford a house here, use the public schools, and there’s a great theater community.
Q: What have been the touchstones and turning points for Ten Thousand Things?
A: In terms of discoveries, we had a huge one with our first Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure,” and seeing how it worked with nontraditional audiences. We also did “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” our first musical, which helped us figure out how to do a honking Broadway show with just eight people.
Q: Contemporary plays have been a challenge, though. Why?
A: A lot of contemporary playwrights write for upper-middle-class audiences. That’s who they hear in their heads and that’s who’s in the seats. So those stories tend to be small, even though the playwrights don’t think so.
But Shakespeare wrote for both the people in the boxes and those who stood for the performance. The Greeks did the same, writing for audiences that are economically diverse.
Q: Your remedy was to have a playwright-in-residence.
A: Yes, Kira Obolensky knows how to hold a men’s prison audience in her head, along with the homeless audience and people from small towns and the general public, which includes the upper middle class.
Q: You’ve directed on both coasts and in the Midwest. Are there substantive differences in the artists and audiences you’ve worked with?
A: First of all, I love this theater community. I love the actors here — they’re more generous and playful and imaginative than actors in any other place I’ve worked. Audiences in New York are hugely judgmental and mean. Here, they’re more open-minded and generous.
Q: What’s your legacy?
A: I’m really proud of the fact that Ten Thousand Things does shows with casts that represent the broad community. Equity and diversity were important to us before they became buzzwords. I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve hired these great artists and that they can make a living working with us. Our budget is now $750,000, and a lot of that goes to paying artists.
Q: You’ve also been a leader in broadening opportunities for women.
A: When I was starting to direct in the ’80s, there were so few women directors. And there was widespread misogyny in the theater world, some of which is still there and very institutional. For example, the rehearsal schedules are hell on families. At Ten Thousand Things, we rehearse 10 to 3 weekdays.
Q: What does the future look like for the company?
A: Well, it’s going to be bright. There’s great optimism around the Twin Cities now as we have all these new leaders at the Jungle, Penumbra, Guthrie, Mu Performing Arts. And I think that the board and community will rally around Ten Thousand Things as we make this transition.
Q: Do you have successors in mind?
A: There are plenty of really strong candidates. When we started doing this type of work, it wasn’t a widespread idea. Today, there are eight companies across the country that practice what we do, from Old Globe in San Diego and Center Stage in Baltimore to little ones like the Light Fantastic in New York and Cripple Creek Theatre in New Orleans.
We’re going to have a conference in the Twin Cities in December. That’s something.
Q: What’s on tap for you in the future?
A: Well, I know it won’t be theater. I like to go see shows, and will, but the kind of theater I want to make, I’ve made. With the recent election and the atmosphere changing in the country, I feel that this moment is calling out for voices to safeguard and rally for our democracy and our ideals.
When we founded Ten Thousand Things, it was on an intuition. For this next chapter, the call to service will come the same way. I just don’t know what that might look like yet.