Captive audiences respond to TTT's invigorated Carousel
Every theater director knows that a great audience can turn a strong performance into a great performance. Ten Thousand Things theater company director Michelle Hensley couldn't find the audience she was looking for in a conventional theater house. She has found it in prisons, homeless shelters, adult day care and housing projects, places where marginalized and low-income people with hard lives respond honestly to the challenging plays she brings. For these audiences, TTT performs work like: Sophocles' Electra, Shakespeare's King Lear, Brecht's Waiting for Godot, Albee's The Ballad of the Sad Café and, now, Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel.
"Theater works best when it asks hard questions and gives no easy answers," said Michelle Hensley, TTT's artistic director, "We choose plays with big stories, stories that everyone can enter, and our audiences get them. They bring their life experiences to the production. They know more about the play than we do. They've lived it."
Carousel tells the story of Billy Bigelow, a tough carnival barker at the end of the 1800s in a poor New England fishing town. Unemployed and boxed-in by his fears, Billy cannot deal with his love for, and dependence on, his wife Julie, and he hits her. When she becomes pregnant, he attempts a violent robbery to support her, but he's caught. Rather than face the shame of prison, he commits suicide. In heaven, he's given a second chance to return to life and to help his child. He steals a star from heaven and, when his daughter rejects the gift and him, he strikes her and fails a second time.
"There was a lot of misogyny written in the 1950s," said Hensley, referring to the acceptance of wife-beating implicit in the book of Carousel. "We changed the intention of the story by changing the stage directions." The original directions required Julie to be timid and a victim. "Without those directions," Hensley said, "her words can make her strong and generous."
Hensley knew Carousel would touch a chord with many in her audiences who have either beaten a spouse or been beaten, and some who might have stolen.
I watched TTT perform a lively, funny and heartfelt Carousel in the day room of the Hennepin Women's Corrections Center. About thirty women sat in chairs arranged in a square, the only set piece a blue floor cloth that revealed fish sewn to its underside, as the cast rippled it in waves. The women sat wrapped by the story, sometimes calling out in response Sarah Agnew's irrepressible Carrie Pipperidge, a girl who is both sexual and engagingly naive. Some nodded, some giggled uncomfortably at the mention of actor Terry Hemplman's vulnerable and angry Billy hitting his wife, Julie.
Asked what she thought of Billy Bigelow, one young woman said, "I don't dislike him, but I wouldn't date him."
Hensley is clear that TTT is not social theater. "We have no pretensions that we alter lives," she said, and she pointed out that the Guthrie would never expect to change an audience member's behavior. "Our goals is to make theater richer. Our audiences make our work better."
Hensley began TTT in Los Angeles in 1990. "When we started," she said, "we had a Brecht play, and we didn't want to present it to a typical LA audience. LA is a film town, not a theater town. People go to the theater out of a sense of obligation. We were looking for the right audience for The Good Person of Sechuan. We knew people without money would appreciate it, so we set up in the lobby of a homeless shelter. The people there understood it in a way we had not seen before. Their hearts were wide open. They responded viscerally. This was something I hadn't witnessed in theater before." Her audiences' response charged her actors, who gave an electric performance. "It's about what these people can teach us," she said, "more than it's about what we can offer them."
Apart from finding the right audience, Hensley and her husband were also looking for the right town in which to work and raise their daughter. They found good public schools and a supportive arts environment in the Twin Cities and brought TTT here in 1994. Working in cafeterias and day rooms, with no lighting or sound design and with minimal sets and costumes, TTT has earned consistent critical acclaim.
"I love having to do spare productions," Hensley said. "That's the environment theater thrives in best. Theater can get crushed under the weight of special effects and opulent scenery. Our special effects are our actors and their voices."
Hensley's vibrant productions before frank and open audiences attract some of the Twin Cities' best actors to TTT. Strong-voiced Carolyn Goelzer plays Julie, Jason Little plays Mr. Snow and singer Ruth Mackenzie plays two roles. To play Billy, Hensley chose Hempleman, who lacks a strong voice but whose looks and acting tap Billy's hurt within the character's hard outer shell. "Billy is very uncomfortable about expressing love," said Hensley, "and we use Terry's uncertain voice to express that. We figure out how the singing fits with what's happening dramatically."
Hensley believes that part of theater's great charm is that it requires active audience imagination to fill in the gaps that are not spelled out by an elaborate production. "We respect our audiences' intelligence and their imaginations, something that is in short supply for them. And they hold us accountable. We know that they know the reality of the play. We can't pretend. If they are not are not interested, they leave. We make certain we do clear, urgent and engaging theater."
Two women got up and moved around at the Women's Corrections Center, but no one left TTT's affecting Carousel.
TTT gives four public performances (see below,) but Hensley encourages people to share the free performances of Carousel with the responsive audiences she has so come to admire at: the Dorothy Day Center, 186, Old Sixth Street, St. Paul, Wednesday May 7 at 2:00 p.m.; Hubert Humphrey Job Corps, 1480, N. Snelling Ave. St. Paul at 1:30 p.m.; Skyline Towers, 1247, St. Anthony, St. Paul, Monday May 12 at 7:00 p.m.; Northside Adult Ed. Center, 1250, W. Broadway Ave. Minneapolis, Wednesday May 14 at 10:00 a.m.
Carousel Public Performances: May 15 - May 18. Thursday - Sunday 8:00 p.m. $20.The Playwright's Center, 2301 East Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call: 612-203-9502.