From driveways to Chinese restaurants, Minn. theaters hit the road

Driveway tour
A crowd gathered in a small St Paul park to see "Tucker's Robot." The show is part of Open Eye Figure Theatre's Driveway Tour. The show draws thousands of people every summer. Many are seeing a show for the first time ever.
Euan Kerr/MPR News

In a small park near the Cathedral in St. Paul, a crowd of children and adults sit in front of a puppet theater.

They plopped down on the grass to see "Tucker's Robot," a high-energy slapstick tale of two pals who decide to build a robot. The show is part of the Driveway Tour by Open Eye Figure Theatre, which began 11 years ago as a practical solution to a sticky problem.

"It was after 9/11, and we were doing shows, and we just felt the energy was different," recalled Sue Haas, Open Eye's artistic producing director. "And people weren't coming out, so then we said 'Well, we'll bring shows to you.'"

Members of the theater company asked friends for a driveway, or a back yard, some lemonade, and a willingness to pass a hat. Open Eye would provide a show. They did about 40 shows that year to a total of 3,000 people, and every year after that watched the audience grow.

"Our goal this year, for the third year in a row, is to reach 10,000 people," she said. "And we do anywhere between 105 and 130 puppet shows in about 10 weeks."

In coming weeks a number of Minnesota theater groups are hitting the road, taking shows far and wide in what likely will be big payoffs for little theaters on the routes.

A lot more people see the summer Open Eye shows than they do at the theater's south Minneapolis Theater. Open Eye now has three touring crews with different plays. The Driveway Tour has become a training program for new performers.

The shows often bring neighbors together, said Michael Sommers, Open Eye's Artist-in-Residence. He recalls a show in south Minneapolis hosted by some punk rockers, who lived next door to some Somalis. Suddenly it began to pour.

"And they took paint cans — the gutter punks — made a little bleachers, and we played in this basement. And the Somali people made food and everybody just hung out together and it was one of those moments when it just happened."

"Tucker's Robot"
"Tucker's Robot" explores the power of friendship, creativity, and chocolate ice cream, as Tucker and his friend Todd build a robot, and deal with a bully.
Euan Kerr/MPR News

Open Eye is far from the only company touring this summer. Theatre Pro Rata is performing Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in Twin Cities parks over the next two weeks. The Mixed Precipitation Company is doing "King Arthur," which it describes as a "picnic operetta," at community gardens around the Twin Cities metro area.

Rochester-based Words Players is taking both "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Twelfth Night" around southern Minnesota, and into Iowa and Wisconsin.

All are looking for new audiences: but Mu Performing Arts is doing it in an unusual venue — Chinese restaurants.

"Working in a Chinese restaurant you learn how to deal with obnoxious customers," says a waitress played by actor Meaghan Kreidler.

"Hey! You!" says one such customer, played by Eric Sharp, trying to catch her attention.

"If the customer is Chinese, you insult them by giving forks," Kreidler continues, icily ignoring the customer. "If the customer's Anglo you starve them by NOT giving forks."

The two actors are rehearsing a scene from David Henry Hwang's "F.O.B." That's an acronym for "fresh off the boat," a term used in the Chinese American community for recent immigrants.

St. Paul-based Mu will tour the play to New York Mills, Mankato, Red Wing, and Rochester. The idea occurred to Artistic Director Randy Reyes after he visited towns around the state and noticed how many had a Chinese restaurant.

It got him thinking.

"I figured there's a lot of people who eat at that restaurant all the time, regularly I bet, who don't know the owner's story," he said. Reyes came up with a plan to stage "F.O.B." in Chinese restaurants. It examines the complicated history of Chinese immigration into the United States.

He received a grant to help cover the costs of the play — and a meal for everyone coming to see the play.

"So they would come in, and they would have a buffet set up for them," he said. "And they would eat at the buffet, and then after about half an hour of them eating a show will start."

Tickets are just $5. Actor Michael Sung-Ho said he hopes the play will raise awareness of the challenges immigrants face. He also hopes to reach Asians across the state.

"If there is an Asian-American kid in some small rural town, being able to see three very powerful Asian-American artists on stage, that in itself has power," Sung-Ho said.

The Chinese Restaurant Tour begins this weekend. Sung-Ho is excited to get on the road, although the cast is not quite sure what to expect. His biggest fear: that he will ruin someone's dinner.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.