When Theater Goes to Prison

Abnormal is normal for Ten Thousand Things theatre company. Shows are performed at homeless shelters and teen-pregnancy centers. There’s no stage, no lighting, and no technical effects. And class, race, education, and life experience are seen as nothing more than reminders that we’re all human.

The company’s newest production, Vasa Lisa, opens tomorrow to “traditional audiences” at Open Book in Minneapolis. While this will be the first time you and I can go see the show, this story, based on a compilation of Russian fairytales, has been touring the state’s correctional facilities, mental hospitals, and shelters for a few weeks now—and receiving rave reviews.

It could be the all-star cast (Tracey Maloney, Sally Wingert, Jim Lichtscheidl, Elise Langer, and Luverne Seifert round out the list). It could be playwright Kira Obolensky’s wonderfully creative script. Or it could be, just maybe, the magic of theater. I talked with Obolensky to find out more about all of the above.

What is Vasa Lisa all about?

Well, it’s an original show I wrote specifically for Ten Thousand Things theatre (TTT). I worked with them in 2009 on Raskol, and loved it. So when artistic director Michelle Hensley approached me to do another show, I immediately said yes. I had some ideas about doing a fairytale, which Michelle liked, and the fairytale I knew from childhood was Vasa Lisa the Beautiful (also known as Vasa Lisa the Wise—there are lots of versions).

Why was it a good fit for TTT?

As I started looking deeper into the story, I learned that psychologists use it to teach people how to trust their intuition. There’s a lot of sparseness to it—lots of room for different kinds of people to enter it. It takes place in another world and is a good metaphor for the nontraditional audiences TTT reaches out to: Vasa Lisa is lost and alone and has to make her way through this deep dark forest—it really connects to what many of the audiences are going through in their own lives.

How have audiences been responding to it so far?

The show changes depending on the audience; they respond to different points of interception and laugh at different things. Take the teen pregnancy center, for example: there’s a lot of stuff in the play about being a good girl, then the character discovers it’s dangerous to be a good girl. You could literally feel the audience at the center really tuning into that plot point. But then at the Shakopee Correctional Facility, they responded more to the subplot involving a character that embodies misery. They clapped when misery met its end.

Why this story?

I’m of Russian descent, which is why I’m familiar with the story, but when you see the play, you realize it’s really a precursor to many other stories; it’s familiar yet different.

It isn’t often you see a fairytale targeting adults.

Doing a fairytale for adults has been really interesting. It takes us all to this place that we know instinctively, but at the same time don’t always recognize. It’s definitely an adult tale, though—there’s a lot of scary stuff in it.

This is a phenomenal cast: Tracey Maloney, Sally Wingert, Jim Lichtscheidl, Elise Langer, and Luverne Seifert? How did you round all them up?

Oh my gosh, don’t even get me started. I could just gush about them all day. They are unbelievable; so inventive and funny. They blow me away every show. It’s such an art form to be able to modulate a performance according to what they feel in the room. Especially with a new play, there’s a lot of work to do and things change all the time—a lot of opportunity for their own input and invention.

What’s it like working in nontraditional venues?

It’s mind altering. I think anybody who’s worked with TTT would say this: Performing at these places results in this profound realization that the story you’re telling can really matter. Even if you’re just making them laugh, you’re making them laugh in a place where there isn’t a lot of laughter. It truly makes you a better person, a better writer, a better artist—it’s amazing; transformative and transporting.

What role does Peter Vitale’s music play in the show?

Music is such an important part of the play. Since there are no lights in TTT shows, the music does the work of the lights. It underscores the whole thing and has a huge role in shaping the story. Since this is a female-centric show, we looked for female alt-indie sounds. Heather Barringer of Zeitgeist and actor/singer/songwriter Annie Enneking are performing the music.

How do you think the play will change when it’s performed for a “traditional” audience?

I don’t know, exactly, but I love the idea that the play comes to a traditional audience after it’s already been gazed at by so many different eyes. It becomes something else because of those eyes—something changes in it that’s palpable to the audience. They are able to imagine where it’s already been, who’s seen it. It’s an expansive experience.

Vasa Lisa
At Open Book: May 4-5, 11-13
1011 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 612-215-2650, openbookmn.org
At MN Opera Center: May 18-20, 24-27
620 N. First St., Mpls., 612-333-2700, mnopera.org/operacenter