Bring a puppet theater into someone’s back yard and they will come.
And they did. About 80 neighbors and friends crowded into Beth Breidel and Marty Neus’ St. Anthony Park yard on June 15 to see Open Eye Figure Theatre’s show “A Surprise for Little Grandpa.”
The performance was one of 45 shows Open Eye will present on its 2010 Driveway Tour this summer. They’ve been staging puppet shows in yards, driveways and parking lots in neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities for eight years.
This is the second year that Breidel and Neus hosted a show. Breidel said she found out about the tour when she attended a show at Open Eye in South Minneapolis two years ago. She signed up to be a host for a summer performance that day.
When she received the schedule for this year’s performances, she didn’t hesitate to sign up again. “It’s a great way to bring the neighborhood together in the midst of our busy lives,” she said.
The shows are all about community building, said Jenna Wyse, Open Eye tour manager. She often sees neighbors meeting each other for the first time at the performances.
“It’s fun to hear people say, ‘Oh you live in the brown house across the street,'” she said. The performances are open to the public, and locations and times are listed on the theater’s Web site.
Susan Haas, who founded the theater with her husband, Michael Sommers, said the small performance venues “are about intimacy.”
Haas and Sommers experienced the kind of intimacy they seek with their Driveway Tour nine years ago while touring Mexico and performing in small villages on the Yucatan peninsula. These were impromptu performances, she said, where 75-100 people would show up. They returned to the United States right after 9-11 and found their audiences in a post-trauma funk. No one was going out, Haas said.
So they decided to bring their work to people’s homes and communities.
Since then, they’ve performed at libraries and homeless shelters, in parks and at festivals, and in backyards in the metro area. They’ve performed more than 300 shows for more than 26,000 people.
Haas said she and Sommers create shows that are fun and touch on situations in people’s daily lives. “We want people to feel good,” she said, so the shows avoid political messages.
The tour has become so popular that this year’s calendar was filled by Apr. 15.
Haas said the success of the Driveway Tour means she and Sommers can concentrate on other work at the theater while their players run the shows. The “Little Grandpa” performers are recent college graduates who have studied theater or improvisation.
After days of rain, Breidel was granted an almost cloudless sky the night the tour came to her house. Children from 1 to 16 and their parents sat on blankets and lawn chairs watching Little Grandpa, the protagonist of this 45-minute play, go through all the mixed emotions of anticipating how his friends and neighbors will help him mark his milestone 100th birthday.
This was 12-year-old Ethan Levin’s third time watching a Driveway Tour performance. So far, he said, they’ve all been “funny and really cool.”
The theater says it’s committed to economic accessibility to the arts and keeping ticket prices affordable. There’s no charge to see a show on the driveway tour, but the performers do pass a hat at the end of each performance. Breidel said the group hopes to raise about $150 at each show, “and I’m sure they did that.”
To find out more about Open Eye Figure Theatre or to see the schedule for upcoming shows, visit openeyetheatre.org.