Michelle Hensley has been bringing theater to people who think they don’t care about theater for over 20 years. Over that time the company has evolved from an intriguing idea to a Twin Cities (and beyond) institution that has run along a parallel, alternate track to the rest of the theater scene.

That trailblazing journey has recently been chronicled and made available for all to see. All the Lights On tells the story and shares the lessons learned by Ten Thousand Things.

Here, Hensley gives a sneak peek of some of those stories and reveals a radical idea for making American theater better.

How did the book come about?

I’ve actually been thinking about it for 10 years. But I wasn’t ready to start writing it then, so I probably spent about 2 years gathering my thoughts, another bunch of years letting it simmer, and then finally it was time! Then we got Kira [Obolensky], on board as our Mellon Playwright-in-Residence for 3 years, and she served this awesome function of setting deadlines for each chapter. I knew that she was on the other side of these deadlines, waiting. That made me write it. I felt like it was ready to be birthed.

The book is about the things we have discovered about theater by performing for all the non-traditional audiences we do. I feel like the past 20 years, we have just made all these amazing discoveries, courtesy of our audiences, about how Greek tragedy actually works, how Shakespeare can work, how musicals can work, and what happens to theater when you know you’re going to have everyone in your audience, when you can’t just assume it’s going to be upper-middle class white people. And that is I think, unfortunately, the unquestioned, unexamined assumption of most theater done in the country. People don’t stop to become conscious of how they’re imagining their conversation with the audience; they just unconsciously assume it’s going to be upper-middle class white people. And I think our theater is impoverished as a result.

So anyway, the book is all about how all those discoveries came to happen, in my own stumbling, fumbling, bumbling way over the past 20 years. And all the people in the Twin Cities community who helped make it happen. Because I really feel like it’s been a community creation. It hasn’t just been me, it’s been a whole bunch of amazing actors, a whole bunch of amazing donors and board members and staff. The whole community has made this thing that’s kind of unique in the country. There’s no other place that does it. Until we started doing our seed program.

And what is that?

It started with Oskar Eustis [at the Public Theater in New York], bless his heart, because they have free Shakespeare in the Park every summer. Joe Papp founded the Public by going around in a truck to all the parks in the five boroughs doing Shakespeare, and he wanted to make it accessible to everyone. Oskar realized that Shakespeare in the Park, even though it’s free, is probably one of the least accessible theater experiences in New York, because you have to able to wait in line all day, and not many people can really do that. So he said, it sounds like you guys know more about what we’re supposed to be doing than we do at this point, so why don’t you come show us.

So I went and did a little production of Measure for Measure with New York actors. And now the Public has resurrected the mobile unit of Joe Papp, but it functions like Ten Thousand Things does. Every year it takes a production of Shakespeare around to prisons and homeless shelters and low-income audiences, and they also perform for the general public like we do. At the time Barry Edelstein was the head of the Shakespeare Lab at the Public, and he was truly blown away by how he saw Shakespeare come alive in the eyes of all these audiences. He said, this is what it must have been like in Shakespeare’s time! He has since taken over the Old Globe in San Diego, and now they have started a program called Globe for All and they’re going around San Diego doing Shakespeare at veterans’ homes and prisons. And then Jon Moscone at Cal Shakes.

I think there comes a time when you’re running a Shakespeare company, where you say, we have to do a production of Much Ado. Again. For the twelfth time, oh my god. What are we going to do? What’s great is when you take it to non-traditional audiences, you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to be inventive, it just takes care of itself. So they’re doing it, that’s three. And Center Stage in Baltimore has expressed a lot of interest, and they’ll probably be next.

Do you ever think about the company having a life when you’re no longer around?

Oh, totally, yeah, yeah! I’m almost 57 now, I’m getting old, and I don’t think I’ll have the energy far into my 60’s. It takes a lot of energy to do it. So finding someone to take over and succession planning has been very important for Ten Thousand Things, and I really am very actively looking now. It can’t just be someone who’s a good director, who thinks it would be fun to do a play in a prison. No, this has to be all you really want to do. And there are some people out there like that. Not a lot, surprisingly. But what I find is they tend to come to me. They hear about it and they’re like, that’s it, that’s what I want to do! So between that and the seed programs, we’ll find someone. My wish is in the next 3 or 4 years to find somebody. Because I’ll be 60! That’s old!

Not necessarily, not anymore.

That’s true, but I think it’s important for the company to have some fresh blood. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and doing it a certain way. And I feel like I might want to do something else too. Because quite frankly, when I look at the world right now, it’s not an awesome place. My personal life is lovely, but the rest of the planet, I don’t know, I think we’re in for some really hard times. I really want to think if there’s anything I can do that would help with that. I mean theater helps a little, but quite honestly, it can make the world a little better place, but I don’t think it’s going to change the world enough.

It seems as though in our western, American society that we’ve come to a place where great luxury is possible, and one of those luxuries is art. We can sell it, we can give it away, as you do, but at the end of the day it’s not politics. It’s not NGO work or food or water work. Still, it’s as close as I get to a kind of spiritual work.

Absolutely. When you sign up to do a show for Ten Thousand Things, suddenly the hierarchy really shifts. Whereas in a lot of theaters the hierarchy is, let’s realize the playwright’s vision or let’s realize the director’s vision or this brilliant actor, let’s let her realize the role as she wants it to be. With us, the most important thing is connecting with an audience who doesn’t think they’re going to like what you’re doing. So everything shifts, and it becomes about something bigger than you. It’s not about your career, it’s not about the great reviews you get, it’s about—can I connect with another human being who I think is really different from me? When that happens, it’s amazing.

And Ten Thousand Things can’t be an African-American theater company or an Asian-American theater company or a European-American theater company, it has to be, because everybody’s in our audience, it has to be the search for what we all have in common. All of us, as human beings. And that, to me, is very spiritual. It’s filled with lots of mistakes, but that’s part of it too. You have to be really humble. So it’s very spiritual and I feel like it’s the best model I can think of – in a Ten Thousand Things performance situation where we have homeless people and corporate CEO’s sitting next to each other, and they’re all watching the play together as equals – that’s the best model for the world that I’ve come across. Unfortunately, it’s usually only about 80 people at a time. But for those 2 hours, it’s pretty awesome.

Can you talk about your casting philosophies with regard to gender, race and culture?

Quite honestly the opportunities for white men at ,Ten Thousand Things are much fewer than they are anywhere else in the world. It simply comes from the fact that, because everyone is in our audience, everyone has to be on the stage. There has to be a way for people who have been marginalized, because of their race or because of their class or because of their gender, to see themselves onstage in a new way.

For me, the most important things casting can do is open up possibilities. It opens up possibilities for audiences to see themselves onstage in a way they’ve never seen themselves onstage before. And it opens up a chance for actors to play parts that they would never get to play if they were cast in the normal world. So that’s one of the things that I look for when I choose a play, and I tend to call them fairy tales. Shakespeare is great for this. Anybody can be anything. Different roles can be played by other genders; not all of the roles, but some. So that’s really important to me.

If I had one criticism to make of most American directors, it’s that they’re very unimaginative in their casting. You hear this old adage, “Casting is 90% of directing!” Well, it’s not where 90% of people’s imaginative energy goes. And it should! I love taking a part that’s supposed to be played by a white man and going, okay, how else could we spin this? Who else could do it?

Do you find it harder to do that in contemporary work?

It’s hard to find contemporary plays for Ten Thousand Things, and that’s why I latched on to Kira when I found her. She loves writing in this fairy tale world. So many playwrights write, perhaps even unconsciously, for an upper class audience. Their worlds are very small. The problems they tend to deal with are very small, like, my career isn’t going the way I thought, or, oh, my marriage has hit the rocks. That’s really not that big a deal to a lot of the people in our audiences. And there are a lot of plays about poor people, about contemporary urban poverty, but we can’t do those plays either, oddly. Our audiences, who live in realistic poverty everyday, really don’t want to re-experience that realistically. It’s too painful, it’s not fun, they live there. So I feel like a lot of those plays are written for rich people. Which is good, to help them understand what it’s like to be poor. That’s good, they should understand that. It’s just not of interest to our audiences.

So some American musicals work well, like Molly Brown. We just totally made it very racially diverse. It’s a play about class, so that works really well. But it’s harder to find contemporary plays, I have to be honest. Another reason I wrote the book, and I know Kira’s been going around the country speaking to different graduate school playwriting programs, to get them to ask the question, what would you do if you knew everyone was going to be in your audience? What story would you choose to tell, if you knew that in addition to wealthy white people, there would be immigrants and inmates and homeless people? It makes you tell bigger stories, more inclusive stories that wrestle with bigger questions than your relationships and your career.

What is a process or production you’re proud of?

Well, it’s usually the first time we try a kind of play. Probably the most profound was the first time we tried Shakespeare. I had never directed Shakespeare before, and I felt that weight, like, you have to have your graduate degree in Shakespeare to be able to do it. But I felt like with Measure for Measure, if I could make the story clear, the audience would like it. So at the start I thought, I don’t know how the hell I’m going to do this, but I’m going to try. And I worked with a bunch of actors who were game to try.

Our first show was at Dorothy Day Center, and Steve Hendrickson was playing Lord Angelo. And he was terrified. He’d never done Ten Thousand Things before. So he had this soliloquy where he’s lusting after Isabella, and he says, What’s this, what’s this, the tempter or the tempted, who sins most? And this woman sitting next to him in the audience said, It’s your fault, shithead. Then in the back of the room this other homeless guy said, Ah, just go ahead and fuck her! The whole audience just started laughing and Steve said his bowels just fell to the floor, and he thought, I’ve lost them, what am I going to do? And this was what we call our Shakespeare Epiphany: he realized all he had to do was say the next line which is, Not she, not she, ‘tis I. We went, oh, right, Shakespeare wrote expecting his audience to shout stuff, that’s what the groundlings did. He didn’t write for a polite, educated, regional theater audience.

In that tour we had our first men’s prison, and we were really, really scared. But they loved the bawdy parts so much. They got the bawdy jokes better than any mainstream audience. Then at the end I looked around, and there were these big guys in their gray sweats and their Converse and they had tears in their eyes. Because they were imagining, when they saw Isabella and Claudio embrace at the end, returned from the dead, you knew they were imagining what it would be like when they got to return to their loved one that thought they were gone or dead. And I thought, I don’t know when I’ve seen someone cry at Shakespeare. That’s when we realized that the extremes in which Shakespeare’s characters live their lives are the same extremes of our non-traditional audiences. In so many ways, they are so much better suited to understand and really feel Shakespeare in their lives than most of us.

So what the audiences have taught us is that theater needs to tap what is going on in your life and not just be an aesthetic experience.

If you could change one thing about the theater world what would it be?

I think the most fundamental change could come in getting rid of all the buildings. And here’s why.

If suddenly you don’t have big fancy buildings for people to come see theater in, if they have to go to their community center and sit in a circle of chairs, here’s what happens: first of all, enormous resources are released and get to go to actors, to the artists. It’s my rallying cry, and it’s always been the rallying cry around Ten Thousand Things fundraising: Artists are not paid enough. I think it’s criminal the administrative staff at most large theaters get full time salary and benefits, and the artists are still left out in the street struggling, piecing together their lives. So if you get rid of the buildings money can go to artists, and suddenly you can be in a place where everybody feels comfortable.

Because the thing is, most of our non-traditional audiences, they’re comfortable because we go to their space, we don’t expect them to come to us. Then afterwards they always come up to us and say, I really want to see more theater, this is awesome, I never knew it was like this. And my heart sinks, because most theater buildings in the Twin Cities, with a few exceptions, I think maybe Mixed Blood, maybe Pillsbury House, are places where they’re not going to feel comfortable. They’re going to feel like they don’t know how to dress, they don’t fit in, they won’t know how to behave. Money is the least of it.

And when you’re in just a normal room, all the lights are on. And what’s awesome about not having the audience not sit in the dark is that the actors can see them. Suddenly as an actor, your cushion’s kind of gone. Everything becomes much more immediate, and the intensity of the connection between the actor and the audience goes up. That’s what theater’s about. It’s about that live-ness. So what I’ve been trying to do with Ten Thousand Things is to take away all the stuff that muffles that live contact.

So in an odd way, if I had to change one thing, I’d say make all those theater buildings into shopping malls or something, and let’s go do it in just normal big rooms. And see who comes.