Unconventional theater. Invested audiences.

‘Twelfth Night’: Some of the Twin Cities’ best theater isn’t inside the walls of the Guthrie or the Jungle theaters. It’s at our prisons.

The slap gives it away. This is a woman.

Her motion is too loose and too centered in the snapping of the wrist. It needs to be tightened up. Most men wouldn’t do it that way.

She needs to expand her chest. Stick it out; widen the elbows. Walk a bit more brutish. Act like she’s wearing concrete deodorant.

The woman she’s sharing the scene with has her character down. The stance is wide. The crotch is jutting out. The voice is a couple of octaves deeper than usual, scraping the baritone range. Demanding presence.

The handful of women in this yellow, mildly ventilated church basement in South Minneapolis are getting it. They’re becoming men.

Some can’t lower their voices much, and others don’t opt to jut out their crotches. But they’re convincingly yelling at one another, playing drunk, unsheathing plastic swords — all the characteristics William Shakespeare gave in copious amounts to the men in his plays.

These women are the greats of Minneapolis Theater doing what they do best. They’re Guthrie and Jungle Theater regulars, an honored dancer, a McKnight Theater Fellow and multiple-award winners. They have recognizable names such as Isabell Monk O’Connor, Sally Wingert and Kate Eifrig.

But this — playing men, rehearsing in a basement — is different, even for them. This is working for Ten Thousand Things.

When the theater group’s production of Shakespeare’s light-hearted “Twelfth Night” debuts later this month, these women will carry the entire production. They’ll play both the female characters — of which there aren’t many — and the males.

In a way, this is a direct response to Ten Thousand Thing’s own all-male production of the gruff, dark, challenging “Richard III” last year. It’s also a natural progression for a theater group that already carries a fairly experimental label. Who else performs almost exclusively at community centers and prisons?

An audience that cares

A Los Angeles homeless shelter kick-started Ten Thousand Things founder Michelle Hensley’s career.

After she finished graduate school almost two decades ago at the University of California, Los Angeles, Hensley began work on the production of a play that posed tricky questions about the darker side of life. It required an invested audience, she says, one not easily found on the West Coast. Actors there regularly prefer TV and film work, and the people in the seats are mostly their supportive — but disinterested — friends and family members.

“The thing about L.A., it’s not a theater town,” Hensley says.

The regular crowds were far from ideal. So the theater group decided the people who could relate best to a tale of tough moral decisions might be the ones who are forced to make them every day, people who aren’t particularly privileged, people who have to use homeless shelters just to survive.

The theater group was admittedly nervous, Hensley says, when it debuted in the shelter. How would the non-traditional audience respond?

Turns out, they were entranced. Connected. Invested. They shouted advice at the characters. They took part.

“It was sort of an amazing exchange,” Hensley says, “something I hadn’t seen in theater before. They brought such a fresh experience.”

She was hooked, and Ten Thousand Things was born.

Today, the now-Minneapolis-based theater group is widely considered one of the best of its community, albeit an unusual one.

It has won numerous awards, but it has no regular rehearsal space and no theater to call home. It commonly features the Twin Cities’ best actors, but they work in no-frills settings with low-key costumes and no elaborate lighting. It doesn’t consider itself a social-service theater group, but half of its performances are done at prisons and many others at community centers.

“I don’t think of it as community service,” Hensley says. “I think this is about doing theater in the best way that we can.”

If Shakespeare in prison sounds far out, remember this: A large portion of the Bard’s original audiences could afford to pay only a penny per ticket. Not everyone in the 1590s sat prim and proper in his or her seat.

It took Hensley’s Shakespeare debut at the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul to really drill that fact home. Actor Steve Hendrickson recalls the experience in a video on the Ten Thousand Things website.

For months, he says, he had practiced and prepared a challenging monologue on lusting after a nun. In rehearsal, there was no audience to pull responses from, while traditional theatergoers tend to respond to such a taboo scene with silence.

The audience at the Dorothy Day Center — well, it was anything but traditional.

“Oh, just f—k her!” a crowd member yelled at Hendrickson during his monologue. Everyone watching erupted in laughter.

Hendrickson was mortified.

“My bowels just dropped to the floor,” he says. “But I had what I now call my moment of epiphany.”

The monologue had become a dialogue.

“It was then,” Hensley says, “that we truly learned that Shakespeare wrote for everybody. He never expected his audiences to be quiet.”

‘Twelfth Night’

Doing single-sex shows won’t become a pattern for Ten Thousand Things, Hensley says. But she says she kind of owed one to her female friends.

Last year’s “Richard III” was as close to true Shakespeare as she’s ever gotten, she says. After all, his plays’ original performances featured no actresses. But “some of my acting friends were miffed,” she says. “There already are so few parts for women in Shakespeare.”

Consider “Twelfth Night” her apology, then, a chance for women to cover all the parts. Whereas “Richard” was true Shakespeare, this is Shakespeare turned on its head. “Twelfth Night” already is a play of delusion and delirium; this only makes it more so.

It’s a new challenge for Hensley, but she’s confident it’ll go over well. That’s because she’s come to trust her audiences, as nontraditional as they might be. She’s learned to expect the unexpected, whether it’s finding wealthy theater fans sitting side-by-side with their poorest neighbors or finding raw emotion at an all-men’s prison.

“When’s the last time you saw someone cry at Shakespeare?” Hensley says.


IF YOU GO

What: Paid performances of “Twelfth Night,” a Ten Thousand Things production
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 17–19,
Oct. 24–26, Oct. 31–Nov. 2
Where: Open Book, 1011 Washington Ave. S.
Cost: $20; reservation required by calling 203-9502 or at www.tenthousandthings.org