Coming to a driveway near you

Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Driveway Tour swings through Southwest

BRYN MAWR — The pink and orange streamers dangling from the bushes off of Chestnut Avenue were just one sign Open Eye Figure Theatre had arrived in Bryn Mawr.

Another was the group of about 10 picnickers in Bassett Creek Park on an overcast but warm Monday evening. A man and his young daughter sat on a blanket nearby, the only others waiting in front of the puppet theater’s small, portable stage a half-hour before show time.

One of the picnickers wondered aloud if there would be much of a crowd for that evening’s performance.

There was no reason to worry: By the time the title puppet in “Little Grandpa’s Big City Adventure” appeared, the grass in front of the stage was filled with dozens of children and their parents, as well as a few dogs. They laughed at the jokes, groaned at some truly bad puns and generally seemed charmed by the half-hour puppet show.

It’s not unusual for Open Eye Figure Theatre’s annual Driveway Tour to draw crowds of 50 or more to its almost-daily performances in neighborhoods across the Twin Cities.

The summer tour is in its seventh season, and has played in front of an estimated 20,000 viewers in nearly 300 driveways and backyards across the metro area, Producing Director Sue Haas said.

“People are opening their yards and doing this not only for people they know, but [for] strangers, and it just becomes this magical thing,” Haas said. “I feel like we’ve made this web from yard to yard across the Twin Cities.”

A puppet in every back yard

That web Haas described connects tony suburban cul-de-sacs with low-income, urban neighborhoods. In 87 stops, the driveway tour will hit St. Paul’s Frog Town this summer, as well as multiple stops around the Chain of Lakes.

The driveway tour was inspired by a trip to Mexico in 2003, when Haas and her husband Michael Sommers took their puppets into dozens of remote villages. (Sommers is the theater’s artistic director.)

“In these tiny little villages we’d have 50 to 100 people watching it, and it was just a magical experience,” Haas said.

That experience lingered with Haas and Sommers. When they launched the driveway tour, economic accessibility was a primary goal.

“We see that each show goes to every kind of neighborhood,” Haas said.

Every performance is free and open to the public. Performers pass a hat for donations at the end of each show.

Just as important for the folks at Open Eye, though, is the community building that a shared theater experience can foster.

Haas signs up dozens of hosts each spring before the tour begins. The hosts agree to open their yards to the public and provide some refreshments. Open Eye does the rest.

“What I love about it is that we do this, but then all that goodwill stays in that community with the host,” Haas said. “People thank us and they [say], ‘Oh, that was great,’ and they love the program, but it’s the host’s effort that makes it work.”

Community building

“Little Grandpa,” a short, loosely structured play that celebrates urban living, is one of two Open Eye shows touring this summer. The other is “The Adventures of Katie Tomatie,” the story of a young gardener who accidentally digs up Mr. Boo Boo, a skeleton.

Puppeteer Laura Lechner, who in three years with Open Eye worked her way up from intern to tour manager, plays Katie Tomatie this summer. Watching from behind the curtain, Lechner has witnessed the special way puppets engage an audience.

“The puppets that Michael (Sommers) designed just have so much personality because he has such a distinct aesthetic that comes through in his puppets,” she said. “I think kids are just really interested — and adults, too — are interested to see how these little objects work and interact with each other.”

Some of the youngest in the audience at the Bryn Mawr show were so interested they couldn’t resist peeking behind the stage during the play.

After the curtain fell on the “Little Grandpa,” the puppeteers invited audience members up for a closer look at the puppets. It was hard to tell who enjoyed the hands-on time more — the kids or their dads.

The crowd lingered a while afterward, joining host Jenny Warner and her family for cookies around a picnic table. (The performance was relocated from the Warners’ house just down the block because they worried their backyard was too small to accommodate a crowd.)

Warner said she’d volunteered for a number of neighborhood events — “anything to get the neighbors together” — and that hosting Open Eye had been one of the easiest and most successful ways to turn out the neighborhood.

For Haas, that’s the whole point.

“[Neighbors] have an opportunity to meet each other, get to know each other a little better,” she said. “It makes what we do bigger.”


Go see it

Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Seventh Annual Driveway Tour began in June and runs through early August at various locations around the Twin Cities. All performances are free and open to the public. For more information on the two shows, performance dates and locations, visit the theater’s website (www.openeyetheatre.org). The following are the remaining performance dates in Southwest:

“The Adventures of Katie Tomatie”

• Saturday, July 11; 4 p.m.
Hosted by Beth Megas
3326 Nicollet Ave. S.

• Tuesday, July 21; 6:30 p.m.
Hosted by Erin Bell
5025 Fremont Ave. S.

“Little Grandpa’s Big City Adventure”

• Sunday, July 12; 1 p.m.
Hosted by Sandy Resnick
2829 Drew Ave. S.

• Saturday, July 18; 1 p.m.
Hosted by East Harriet RoseFest,
Lyndale Farmstead Park, 3900 Bryant Ave. S.

• Monday, July 20; 7 p.m.
Hosted by Angela Gustafson
4123 Zenith Ave. S.

• Tuesday, July 28; 6:30 p.m.
Hosted by Anne-Marie Fischer,
2539 Pleasant Ave. S.

• Thursday, July 30; 6:30 p.m.
Hosted by Youth Farm & Market Project, corner of Pillsbury Ave. S. and W. 31st St.