Though Open Eye Figure Theatre's Driveway Tour is in its sixth year, when asked for a signature memory of the company's urban performance series, the theater's co-founder remembers a rainy afternoon during the itinerant production's first season.
"We were doing The Adventures of Juan Bobo in this punk-rock house in west Phillips," Michael Sommers remembers. "They had these neighbors, a Somali family in an apartment who were just about to move out to the suburbs. The show was going to be rained out, but the Somali family had this little basement room. The little kids were rolling up the prayer rugs, while the punks went out and got planks and empty paint buckets to make seating down there. There was a single bright light bulb. It was all steamy from the rain. The Somali women made some food, the punks got some wine, and we did the show and had a great time together. Then the Somali family moved out to the suburbs."
Sommers founded the company with his partner, Susan Haas, whom Sommers credits with the inclusive community vision behind these pass-the-hat puppet shows staged in backyards, parks, and, yes, driveways during the summer months.
OPEN EYE THEATRE DRIVEWAY TOUR 2008
various locations throughout the summer; at Open Eye Figure Theatre through July 26
"The original idea came after 9/11," Haas says. "We went down to Mexico with a suitcase show and an accordion and our kids. We went to all of these tiny rural villages and did impromptu performances."
When Sommers and Haas returned to the Twin Cities, the traditional theater was in a slump. Invigorated by the "immediate dialogue" Sommers describes from their Mexican sojourn, they considered how to reproduce that experience locally.
"The idea was partnerships with individuals in their own communities," Haas says. "Maybe we can use the arts to help heal these communities."
By the end of this summer, Haas estimates, Open Eye will have staged 275 shows locally, to an audience of 23,000. They have three puppet and figure shows touring, with three casts: Juan Bobo, inspired by a Puerto Rican folk character; The Adventures of Little Grandpa, a free-flowing urban picaresque; and The Adventures of Katie Tomatie, about a little girl who brings an antic skeleton to life while planting tomatoes in her garden.
All three programs cut across age and culture. As Sommers puts it, it's about "making shows that entertain and delight—with no agenda."
While the shows are short (about half an hour), and happily free of angst and deep meaning, Haas talks about the social bonding she hopes will result from the tour. Open Eye doesn't plan the events, for instance; the casts show up by invitation and let the hosts plan the logistics.
"We ask the host to provide refreshments and find people to help them network in the neighborhood," she says. "We provide the product and the structure for the community to essentially produce this themselves."
A full list of Driveway Tour shows is available on the company's website. In addition, for the next three weekends, Open Eye is staging each show consecutively, with the puppet show followed by ice cream and live music (the shows are free, with donations accepted).
Haas and Sommers clearly relish taking Open Eye's high-level, tradition-informed material to audiences that might never see such work. There's a certain thrill in winning over a crowd that doesn't know or care about Open Eye's history, or Sommers's particular puppet mastery and consistent boundary exploration. Sommers talks about a recent show, when more than 50 over-excited kids swarmed the performers after the program, keeping them from breaking down the sets and puppets.
"The kids wanted to see everything, and there was this three-foot fish puppet on rods," he remembers. "So Sue took it into this field and had all the kids following her and swimming with the fish. That was great, of course, until one fell down and started crying."
Such are the highs and lows of summertime. But no matter your age, you can do worse than swimming with a fish in a city field, or having lemonade after a show with someone you just met. Hey, we'll all have to hibernate again soon enough.