Karma Hughes’s lawn is full of preschoolers. There’s a few dozen of them, running around, popsicles in hand. The tiered garden in the front yard forms a sort of amphitheater around a small stage. As accordion music wells up, the children hush each other. Soon, they’re shrieking at a giant fish, laughing at a skeleton’s puns and chanting “Tomatoes! I love ‘em! Oh yeah!”
The Hughes are one of 115 families hosting puppet shows in their yard this summer as part of the Open Eye Figure Theatre’s annual Driveway Tour. For 10 years, the company has been taking its handmade puppets on the road to perform in driveways and backyards for free all around Minneapolis. The tour has blossomed into a training ground for young puppeteers.
Hughes got involved with the Driveway Tour after stumbling across a performance of “The Adventures of Katie Tomatie” a few years ago in Loring Park. Her family hosted the same show this summer.
What: Open Eye Figure Theatre’s Driveway Tour 2012
Where: Various homes, parks and libraries in Minneapolis
When: Through August 7
Full list of shows at: openeyetheatre.org/sites
“It was one of those wonderful things where you stumble upon it, and you can’t believe it exists,” Hughes said. “It’s so magical, we stayed for two rounds of Katie Tomatie that time.”
Hughes’s children, ages 3 and 5, delivered fliers to neighbors’ mailboxes.
At first, the tour was conceived to keep Open Eye afloat. Attendance was plummeting at the year-old theater in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
“Our audiences dropped off. The whole country was in such a shock,” said Susan Haas, co-artistic director of Open Eye. “I remember we were doing a show in the theater and maybe 20 people came.”
Haas and her partner Michael Sommers performed a number of unannounced puppet shows in small villages in Mexico while on vacation with their family. Inspired by the response they received, they performed at 40 homes in Minneapolis the following summer. By 2011, the tour reached about 40,000 people in 500 neighborhoods.
The driveway shows are all free and open to the public, and the performers collect donations at the end of each show. Last year, Open Eye found itself with only enough money for 35 shows so it devised a new system where hosts pay for the shows. This allowed Open Eye to book 115 shows this year and to reserve its funding for performances in poorer communities.
“[The tour] evolves and changes in response to what’s going on in our culture, the community, the economy and the needs of the company,” Haas said.
As Open Eye and the tour grew, Haas and Sommers recruited a group of young puppeteers to perform the mobile shows. Many of these puppeteers are Sommers’ students from the University of Minnesota, where he teaches at the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.
“There’s a lot of interesting puppetry in the cities … but there’s not a lot of training for it,” Haas said. “It’s a very specialized form because it’s not only a performance but also a visual art from.”
Sommers handmade all of the puppets. One of the main characters in “Katie Tomatie” is a large skeleton named Mr. Boo Boo who often talks to the children in the audience, mugging after his many bad puns and asking the crowd for help after a dog takes his legs. Late in the show, Katie and Mr. Boo Boo are chased by a huge fish, which squirts water onto the audience as it swims over the stage.
“It’s such a huge impact on these kids,” Haas said. “We hear from families a lot that two or three years after, their 3-year-old still talks about Katie Tomatie, or does the chants or sings the songs. It’s really fun.”