Open Eye theater takes puppets on driveway, backyard tours

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Katie Tomatie and her BFF, the skeleton. "The Adventures of Katie Tomatie" was a hit in Beth Breidel's backyard.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Sometimes theater companies can't wait for crowds to fill their seats; they have to go meet audiences on their own turf. For Open Eye Figure Theatre that literally means their own yards. For the last seven years, Open Eye has brought its distinctive brand of puppet theater to back yards all over the metro area, and its annual "Driveway Tour" has become a cherished summer tradition.

In the backyard of St. Paulite Beth Breidel, it's fifteen minutes before show time and the clouds have been threatening all day. But Breidel has decided not to panic.

"I was about a moment away from googling homeopathic remedies to prevent rain, but it's perfect," she said.

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Beth Breidel brought the Open Eye Figure Theatre Driveway Tour to her St. Paul home. Breidel says the performance can help nurture relationships with neighbors.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Breidel heard about the Driveway Tour after taking her family to a winter Open Eye production and quickly signed up to be a host.

She can talk very eloquently about how an hour-long early evening puppet show, accompanied by refreshments, can help bind a community together, but Breidel can also put it bluntly.

"I don't like running into my neighbors only at the grocery store," she said.

In a way, Open Eye founders Michael Sommers and his wife, Susan Haas, imported the driveway tour idea from Mexico.

They had taken their puppetry to villages in the Yucatan Peninsula and made what they felt was a magical connection with natives.

When they got back, they found Minnesota theatergoers in a post-Sept. 11 funk. So Sommers and Haas decided to duplicate their Yucatan village tour in the Twin Cities.

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Sue Haas provides the pre-show entertainment as the audience assembles for a backyard puppet show.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"It was such a great experience," Sommers said. "Just this immediate exchange of an event and an audience."

This prompted Susan to ask the question: How do we get people to come to us?

Haas' answer: "We thought, we will go to them."

And for the last seven years they have, performing more than 300 shows for an estimated 26,000 people at libraries, parks and in backyards.

The tour has a few underwriters, but the players also rely on the traditional passing of the hat. It's become so institutionalized that Sommers, who this week won a Bush Foundation Enduring Vision Award, has been able to pass on the actual performing to U of M theater students.

Tour stops have ranged from affluent suburban neighborhoods to dilapidated urban dwellings inhabited by squatter punks.

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Open Eye Figure Theatre co-founder Sue Haas accompanies all the backyard productions on accordion.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"A lot of times this is the first theatrical experience the audience has ever had," Sommers said. "I mean, they're sitting in someone's yard and they're seeing this odd little play."

Odd yes, and minimally staged. Just a simple stand, a few curtains and some very expressive puppets with human like gestures drawing everybody's attention.

The current performance is "The Adventures of Katy Tomatie." It's about a girl having a do-nothing summer day that plants a tomato plant, happens to dig up a friendly skeleton and together, they have an adventure or two. It's a very kid-friendly story

With an occasional double entendre for the parents.

When it was over, the kids reacted favorably, even to the elephant-like puppet that sprayed the audience.

"I thought the show was good cause it had humor and I think it had a message," said 9-year-old William Quie. "You can have fun. No matter what situation, it's possible to have fun."

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Sue Haas and Michael Sommers started the Driveway Tour seven years ago. Sommers has since passed on the actual performing to "U" theater students.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

A lesson kids should remember with the long summer fully underway.

Meanwhile, the parents were grateful to have their children occupied by art that didn't forget the older folks.

The experience made Rob Cuccia of Minneapolis want to bring it to his neighborhood.

"We're gonna pass along the information to our day care provider and I think she probably be interested in having it herself, or maybe us or our neighbors," Cuccia said.

And that's basically how the Open Eye Figure Theater Driveway Tour makes it way from backyard to backyard, all over the Twin Cities, all summer long.

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