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ten thousand things theater


Ten Thousand Things Theater: Prison Productions Guide Audience.

The old rule states that you shouldn’t go to prison unless you’re sentenced to prison.

Sound right to you? Me, too? No one volunteers for prison, we think.

And we’re wrong.

Prison theater sounds like an everyday job for convicts just to get by; you know, play a role.

If you’re going to go into a prison as a free person, and leave as a free person, you need to go in with intentions.

Putting on a play for prisoners is just such an intention, therefore, prison theater.

Ten Thousand Things Theater gets it done in Minnesota.

Where else should the show go on?

Where should the show not go?

From Prison Arts Coalition:


  1. Inside-Out Oregon Academic and arts courses
  2. Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution Creative Arts program, annual Shakespeare production
  3. Center for Intercultural Dialogue – Prisons and Peace Kelley Totten,
  4. Write Around Portland 503.796.9224,
  5. Project HOPE Peggy Kendellen,
  6. The Beat Within  David Inocencio,, (415) 503-4170
  7. Open Hearts Open Minds Dialogue, theater, reentry,
  8. The Concertina Wire Radio Program University of Oregon,

Reading at the Willamette Writers meeting in Portland, playwright Kira Obolensky said prisoners’ faces changed during plays from shut down expressions of incarceration to the expectant faces of all theater fans wondering ‘what’s next?’

If you’ve seen that transformation, then you’ve seen the human spirit in action. Then there’s the exact opposite.

One job I had involved occasional heavy labor, not something you’d expect in the museum world.

Traveling shows make the rounds in heavy crates riding in big trucks. The exhibit goal is getting the trucks unloaded, the crates unpacked, and artifacts installed.

This is where the chain gang came in.

I clocked in at work, checked the schedule, then hiked up to SW 11th to collect guys to unload the big stuff.

We’d walk the five blocks together back to the museum.

Once out of the work-release Martha Washington the prisoners were just guys. No orange jumpsuits for them.

Running a crew means teamwork and my crew bonded right away. No one wanted to be the weakling.

They were loud and funny and pointed things out for each other. Just guys doing man-work. They were in high spirits all day, then we walked back.

Once inside the correction facility they returned to prisoner status. The first time was shocking. Everyone shut down at the same time. It felt like they choked off their own humanity to be good prisoners.

All week the same routine: walk up to 11th, sign for the fellas, have a great day, and walk them back. It turned into a competition inside to join my crew.

The loading zone sat across from a florist on Jefferson and Broadway with pretty girls arranging and watering flowers all day, but I’m sure that wasn’t the draw.

The end of everyday brought the same result, hitting the switch from free to locked down.

If Kira Obolensky and Ten Thousand Things Theater help one released prisoner avoid the repeat offender tag, their work is effective.

More important, if theater helps prisoners treat one another with greater care, then they have a chance to retain their own humanity.

If concern for others doesn’t start at home, or the neighborhood, it gets buried.

Finding the essence of humanity in prison is worth shoveling for.

Can you dig it? Johnny say yes.

ten thousand things theater


About David Gillaspie


  1. David, thank you for sharing some of your thoughts on how the work of Michelle Hensley, Kira Obolensky, and Ten Thousand Things Theater reminds everyone of their humanity.

    If this theater experience functions transformatively for the incarcerated, think how it could help everyone else.

    It’s always been clear to me that a genuine, honest performance has the power to alter perception and bias. More work is needed to bring this type of experience to everyone.

    • David Gillaspie says:

      Hey Peter,

      I remember seeing the musical Momma Mia and walking around in a daze during intermission wondering why I was so thrilled to hear Abba. What the heck was going on between musical theater and me?

      Then I saw the same expression on others. Like I say about art: it gets you before you get it.

      If behavior is learned, theater can be a great teacher. How do you think Tennessee Williams would play inside?

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