Intense, intelligent and collaborative: Open Eye Figure Theater opens eyes

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" runs through Nov. 13 at Open Eye Figure Theatre. Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics, however, often toil humble humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class. Named after author Richard Florida’s 2002 groundbreaking book, “The Rise of the Creative Class,” the lifestyles and ethos of these creatives do not necessarily echo these economics.

Frequently laboring into the wee hours for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators, produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create — and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

So it is with the creative team of Michael Sommers and Susan Haas who wholly deliver on their stated mission “to create original image driven theater, animating the inanimate on an intimate scale, building community by advancing adventurous, artist-driven programming.”

Longtime professional and personal partners, Sommers and Haas have spawned an enterprise and a family steeped in community and creativity. Staking their claim in south Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood, emphatically positioned on the margins of the thriving Minneapolis creative class economy, they established Open Eye Figure Theater in 2000 after years of itinerant productions, transforming a 110-year-old historical storefront into a top-notch, 90-seat theater with living spaces, studios and gardens, a haven for artists and audiences alike.

It is here where they have made a commitment to live, work and play, determinedly providing access to individuals who might never experience live theater otherwise. Correspondingly, Open Eye’s iconic Driveway Tour brings professional family-oriented puppet theater to parks and back and front yards all around the metro area.

Although he is a tenured University of Minnesota professor, with a national and international reputation as versatile and ingenious theater artist, Sommers is more comfortable behind than in front of audiences.

On a recent opening night’s performance, pinch-hitting for his beloved wife, Sommers, director and artist-in-residence of Open Eye, faces the audience at once jittery and charming.

“Please excuse me,” he demurs, “my wife Susan usually welcomes everyone here, but tonight she’s by her father’s side.” Haas, herself an artist known as the backbone of the theater, is with her immediate family in Wisconsin this evening holding a bedside vigil for her father who Sommers delicately mentions “is passing.”

This authenticity and the intimacy of his message is part of what defines the immediacy of an Open Eye theater experience. Sommers and Haas’ own three children and granddaughter Mary are on hand to support their father’s emotional introduction — but audience members have already taken on a close and compassionate role.

In this pocket-sized performance space, the audience respectfully hushes as the lights dim and a beam illuminates a backdrop reminiscent of traveling medieval European marionette shows. For the next hour plus, the events on this miniscule stage transport those gathered to grand reaches of the imagination.

A perfect offering in this season of the supernatural, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” enthralls young and old with Sommers’ clever adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 poem, “Der Zuaberlehrling,” transforming this timeless bildungsroman (coming of age) tale to touch deep places in our collective psyche with horror, humor, marionette mastery and musical magnificence.

Fans, friends and family revere the team of Sommers and Haas, but most appreciably they are held in high regard among their own theatrical peers, near and far. Highly collaborative, they have long partnered with the crème de la crème of the Twin Cities dramatic community, working early on with such giants as Barbara Berlovitz and Dominique Serrand of the now defunct and greatly missed Theatre de la Jeune Lune and Garland Wright of the Guthrie. And, Sommers’ ongoing co-creations with Minnesota’s cherished public radio personality and storyteller, Kevin Kling, are legendary. Nine years ago, Kling moved his wildly popular August show to Open Eye when he was shut out of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Both men share a history dating back at least 30 years to their ‘foundling’ days at Heart of the Beast Theater.

In Sommers’ creations — his animated sticks, brooms, buckets and hats, intricately designed and manipulated marionettes and large masked humans — the Heart of the Beast and Bread and Puppet Theater influence is evident. There is a long tradition in puppet theater of manipulating inanimate objects to create abstraction and a heightened experience of “suspended disbelief.” Open Eye does this with a distinctive flair, adding a postmodern technique of mixing live actors wearing fantastically oversized masks and developing remarkable music, lighting and set design to create an immersive experience.

And the collaborative factor lives on. The magic of Sommers’ puppet sculptures is augmented in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by a talented team which includes Kurt Hunter’s engineering and construction, Jim Muirhead’s prop design, Susan Haas’ costuming, energetic puppeteers, Kaen Keir, Kat Luna, Rick Miller and Liz Schachterie and a host of others — all local, all creative class card holders!

On this opening night performance, an 11-year-old explains that it is his very first time experiencing theater. Typically squirmy and easily distracted according to his father, he sits glued to his seat, eyes wide open, transported to a realm where imagination and community are the currency and coin. Open Eye earns its name.

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

When: Through Nov. 13

Where:  Open Eye Figure Theater, 506 E. 24th St.

Info: 874-6338, Tickets are $12 for students, $15 for seniors (65-plus) and $18 for general admission. (Pay-as-able options available.) “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is recommended for ages 8 and up.