THEATER: Open Eye Takes to the Streets

Bringing their puppetry and figure theater to a neighborhood near you, Open Eye Figure Theatre wraps up its summer-long "Driveway Tour" September 6 at the Walker Sculpture Garden; Jen Paulson gives you the skinny on these off-beat, informal productions.


This profile was originally published in the Twin Cities Daily Planet and is reprinted with permission.

GOING TO A COMPLETE STRANGER’S HOUSE TO SIT IN THE GRASS in their front yard to watch a puppet show really is not the kind of thing a relatively shy person like myself usually does. But, as I sat in the summer sun on a lawn in the Seward neighborhood on a recent afternoon, I felt at ease. Adults and children sat together to enjoy a performance by Open Eye Figure Theatre: The Adventures of Little Grandpa, a tale of the city that involved a lost baby alien, a reggae-singing heroine, and a troublemaking cat named Frisky.

It was a stop on Open Eye’s summer “Driveway Tour 2008″—a tour in which the Minneapolis company performs in yards and driveways across the Twin Cities, by invitation and without charge (though donations are accepted). “I think that’s awesome they come out to the neighborhoods and make this available for people to experience,” said Debora Miller, who hosted the show. “I thought this would be an exciting experience, especially for the kids, to see theater happen and see that it can happen anywhere you want it to happen.”

Open Eye Figure Theatre’s renovated space opened last August, after a long and fruitful reconstruction. As I was briefly left unsupervised when I visited the space, I was overcome with a sense of childlike bewilderment at the distinctly strange and wonderful puppets hung in display on the wall. The stage held several scattered chairs, with a tuba propped up on one of them. I took a moment to daydream about how satisfying it would be to march around the space with it. Instead, I held myself back and made acquaintance with Dudley, a sweet, sideways-walking boxer who sniffed and chortled loudly. I knew the space was definitely a true workshop of the imagination.

I met with producing director Susan Haas in the expansive garden backyard of Open Eye’s facilities. It was an indie landscaper’s dream: cozy patio, lush grass, good shade, gorgeous blooms on the summer flowers, and a large communal table nestled under stairs that lead up to the apartments of some lucky renters. Open Eye, founded in 2000 by Haas’s husband, Michael Sommers, has been a collaborative effort inspired by Sommers’s lifelong fascination with puppetry and figure art—and, specifically, a family vacation to Mexico in which Haas and Sommers brought their own suitcase puppet theater to small villages. Open Eye’s productions incorporate both puppetry and live actors.

Both Haas and Sommers have extensive theater experience and a passion for accessible art. “Everyone should be able to participate in the arts,” says Haas, “not just if you have twenty bucks for a ticket.” But the scope of their vision goes beyond what theater prices are: Open Eye takes a proactive stance and has managed to inspire members of communities of all socioeconomic backgrounds, throughout the metro area to invite the company into their neighborhoods for a stop on Open Eye’s summerlong “driveway tour.”

“We’re creating an environment where all ages are together,” says Haas. “The audience is reflective of the communities.” Sommers and Haas have explicitly worked this idea of community into their own lives. They have raised their children in the Phillips neighborhood, in which they have resided for many years. When they decided to renovate and open a new space for their theater company, they chose a location on the corner of 5th and 24th—only a sound barrier shields them from the busy traffic of the 35W overpass.

Haas is proud of Open Eye’s investment in its inner-city neighborhood. “We’ve lived in the neighborhood for thirty years, so we know the challenges, and we want to use our work to help improve the neighborhood, too. I think, just by being here, we can do that. I think it’s a safer corner because of it.”

Open Eye hosts occasional open houses, which are raucous occasions. At the event I attended, people of all ages spilled in the door as the band Lady Franklin (featuring a washtub bass reading, This machine washes fascists) spilled out its old-timey guts. The performance of The Adventures of Katie Tomatie—a story about a young girl’s quest for “do nothin’ day,” only to have it interrupted by a comical talking skeleton—was whimsical, smart, and entertaining. Young children giggled and adults felt nostalgically entertained.

Like the performances on the “Driveway Tour,” it was true to the vision of Haas and Sommers: you don’t have to be young or old or of a specific race or gender to enjoy theater. You just have to be open to magic, a little whimsy and, above all, hope.

About the author: Jen Paulson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. Her book of essays, Best.Song.Ever., should be on shelves by 2019.

What: Open Eye’s 2008 Driveway Tour wraps up with a performance of The Adventures of Little Grandpa
Where: Walker Art Center, Sculpture Garden
When: September 6, 11 am
Admission is FREE and open to the public