Theater causes us to connect with other human beings as we meet together in the same room to engage our imaginations, via the presence of the actor, in stories that explore the eternal questions of human existence. If theater works, this connection forces us to consider perspectives different from our own and thus empathize with others who are different from ourselves. All humans need this essential exercise for their imaginations, as well as the experience of deep connection to the human community.

I’ve come to this sense of the essence of theater through seventeen years of working with my company, Ten Thousand Things. TTT brings theater directly to audiences with little access to the wealth of the arts—people in prisons, homeless shelters and adult education centers—who in turn have helped me to make discoveries about how theater really works. At TTT, the finest actors in the region bring to life Shakespeare, Brecht, Sophocles—American musicals too—plays with stories big enough to match the lives of our audiences, many of whom have lived hard lives at the extremes of human existence. To reach our audiences, we must perform in barebones conditions, often industrial-carpeted rooms with cinderblock walls, fluorescent lights and folding chairs laid out in a circle. Rather than being limitations, these conditions, along with the fresh eyes of our first-time audiences, are a huge blessing.

Because my focus is constantly on the intensity of the connection the audience makes with what is happening on stage. Here are a few things I’ve learned about how to make that connection strongest:

Whatever is happening on stage has to be clear, urgent and lively. If the audience’s attention sags, chances are that what’s happening on stage just isn’t clear enough, urgent enough or lively enough. It’s usually as simple as that.

Too much stuff gets in the way. Empty space allows an audience to more deeply engage their imaginations to fill in the rest of the experience and this is something they profoundly enjoy.

Theatrical lights and dark houses get in the way. The connection is so much stronger if both actors and audiences are equally lit and the actors can actually see the audience.

The more wildly diverse the members of your audience are, the better—especially if they are seated in a fully-lit circle and can watch each other during the show. During our performances, we often have a CEO sitting next to a homeless person, both participating in the story playing out in front of them as equals. How often does that happen in this world? When one hears the other laugh at something he or she didn’t recognize as funny, each is forced to figure out why and open new possibilities for understanding in the process.

This is stuff that people long ago used to know. Only recently have we come to believe that theater needs an educated, wealthy audience (who can pay for the expensive tickets needed so theater can prove itself as a business), fancy buildings, plush comfortable seats, spacious lobbies, elaborate lighting, breathtakingly elaborate sets and costumes and on and on. Under all of that, we’ve buried the essence of theater.

If theater works, everyone comes away enlivened, awakened and inspired. In other words, they’re moved because their imaginations, minds and hearts have moved to connect during the play—with characters, with actors, with other audience members. We want to connect. Deep down, we all really do. Theater done right has an amazing yet simple structure that humans have created to deepen our connections.