25 Years of Ten Thousand Things

The season starts with a gala and the 1671 comedy Scapin

The promotional photo of Scapin, starring Sarah Agnew. Photo by Peter Vitale.
Scapin starts off the season for Ten Thousand Thing Theater Co.

Photo by Peter Vitale

On the first rehearsal day of Scapin, like with any Ten Thousand Things Theater Co. production, everyone went around the room and told a story about one of their most memorable experiences with the company. Anecdotes about what makes the work so rewarding spill out (as do moments of embarrassments or challenges), and if there are newcomers, they get their first taste of what performing with the company is like.  

The actors who come to the nonprofit theater company aren’t theater rookies by any means. For the company’s season opener, the 1671 comedy Scapin, Sarah Agnew, most recently seen at the Guthrie in An Enemy of the People and Watch on the Rhine, plays the titular character, and the play is directed by Randy Reyes of Theater Mu. Performing with Ten Thousand Things, however, can be a very different experience.

Ten Thousand Things strives to make theater accessible to all, which in itself isn’t that original, but the way they do it is. Their main audiences are people in homeless shelters and in prisons, as well as immigrant centers, chemical dependency centers, low-income senior centers, after-school programs, reservations, rural locations, and more.

“There is very little production support in terms of set and lighting and props and things like that,” Agnew says. “You’re facing the audience, the audience can see each other. You see everybody, so there’s an immediacy to the performance style that I really like.”

What sets some of the audience members apart to the actors isn’t who they are; it’s how they respond. As they sit in the round, they shout out their thoughts on a scene when they’re into it. They don’t hide their boredom if they’re not. Because there is no distance between the stage and the seats, the need to tell the story, but to be real, is that much more.

A photo from Ten Thousand Things' Il Campiello in 2011. Photo by Paula Keller.
A photo from 2011’s Il Campiello, during the performance at Hennepin County Men’s Corrections. Il Campiello was both Randy Reyes’ and Sarah Agnew’s first production with Ten Thousand Things Theater Co.

Photo by Paula Keller

Sometimes it can seem like the play hits too close. Reyes, who has been working on and off with Ten Thousand Things since acting in the 2011 show Il Campiello (Agnew’s first experience with the company was in the same show), also directed A Streetcar Named Desire in 2013. The show was good—its topics of homelessness and abuse were powerful—but it made him question how well the story was able to help his audience.

“There was at least one shelter I remember where it was difficult. The trauma was too close,” Reyes says. “You can see it on their faces; you can hear them crying. It was really palpable. It was not subtle. And you would think this is a way for catharsis, to work their emotions through a play, and for many it brought out positive reactions, like, ‘Thank you for bringing this story; it really resonated with me,’ but also at the same time, is this what they need to see and hear right now? So it’s a mix.”

This is not to undercut what Ten Thousand Things is doing; rather, it is to point out just how necessary it has been for them to understand who their audience is and why they perform the theater they do. Theater can truly cut through walls and touch lives, and Ten Thousand Things is an embodiment of why that is so valuable and precious. 

For the past 25 years, founder and artistic director Michelle Hensley has breathed life and, most importantly, action into Ten Thousand Theaters’ mission, but Scapin marks her last show. In summer 2018, the company announced Hensley would begin transitioning leadership to Marcela Lorca, the former Guthrie director of company development. As Lorca settles into her new role, she hopes to continue strengthening and diversifying community ties, but she’s also open to exploring the creation of plays and musicals.

“Marcela [Lorca] is just a beautiful storyteller that will continue to push the artistic expression of Ten Thousand Things, and she is also great with creating community,” Reyes says, reflecting on the years he has known her since he was a Juilliard student doing a summer program at the Guthrie in 1998. To him, the fact that Hensley chose him to direct the first show of the season and then ended up choosing one of his mentors as her next artistic director is serendipitous.

For what feels like such big ambition and hope, Ten Thousand Things is a small operation with people juggling many different hats. The company faces challenges many theater companies face, and it also faces problems unique to it. As it continues to grow from the foundation Hensley set, it will doubtless keep true to its mission—it’s hard not to when the first rehearsal of every show is a stark reminder of why they are there. 

Agnew has a few stories she can share when they go around the circle, but here is one: “When we did Il Campiello, there’s a moment in the show that was really ridiculous, and we were in a men’s prison,” Agnew says. “All of the male inmates were just cracking up at this moment, and you could see around the perimeter of the inmates, there were the guards, and they started cracking up too at this moment. You could see the inmates see the guards and their humanity, and the guards were sharing a laugh with the inmates. It just felt like a very unifying moment.”

Ten Thousand Things is celebrating 25 years with a gala at the Aria Sept. 17, and they are taking a look at the past and the future with actor performances, musicians, an interactive history, good food, dancing, and more. The gala is also the kick off of the new season. Less than two weeks after, Scapin starts its first free public touring performances at the Interact Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Check out a glimpse of the season (dates listed are for shows with pay or pay-as-you-can tickets):

Scapin (Oct. 11-Nov. 4)

“It feels really good right now to be in rehearsal and be in a room together that laughs. That feels really important right now,” Reyes says. “But also it talks about status in a really interesting way and it talks about privilege and how this person survives and how you manipulate your world and play with status and undercut those privileges.” Reyes’ adaptation of Scapin also includes updated language and a reworking of gender roles and identities.

Into the Woods (Feb. 21-March 24)

“It happens in other worlds and other times and includes all kinds of characters, so everybody can relate to one character of the story,” Lorca says. “I love a good challenge, and this will be a great challenge for us to do a musical as complex as Into the Woods with really one or two musicians and some great singers.”

The Sins of Sor Juana (May 17-June 9)

“It is about someone who really has a passion for artistry living in confinement and finding the freedom of her own voice,” Lorca says. “It’s an opportunity for me to bring a play from a different culture to our audiences, to introduce them to a very unique world, but also to talk about confinement and how the light can live within us even in places that are not the most joyous or auspicious.”