Off-Leash theater finds that garages are the perfect stage

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW HARLOW@STARTRIBUNE.COM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 27, 2012 - 11:23 PM

The company will kick off its Garage Tour with performances in Stillwater this weekend.

A fastidious bird and a rambunctious dog meet in a city park and over the course of four seasons -- summer, fall, winter and spring -- fall in love.

The family-friendly tale by Off-Leash Area theater is a professional production that will unfold this weekend in a small neighborhood garage in Stillwater.

This summer, Off-Leash will present "The Picnic" 23 times over eight weekends, beginning with shows at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at 1900 N. 2nd St. in Stillwater. The schedule for the summer includes performances in Bloomington, Plymouth, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Lakeville.

"It's about bringing work to the people," said Paul Herwig, artistic director of the Minneapolis-based theater company.

"It's unpretentious but professional-level dance and theater in an atmosphere that isn't a big institution."

This marks the third year Off-Leash has staged productions in the dusty garages where people park their cars. But while the surroundings are unconventional, they are far from makeshift productions.

The show features a full-length jazz score by the Willie August Project, poetic text by National Endowment for the Arts fellow Lightsey Darst and a set of vibrant colors by McKnight Theatre Fellow Herwig.

Jennifer Isle and Jordan Klitzke star in "The Picnic," a 60-minute show about navigating differences and the journey of life and relationships. A narrator who fills the role of an eccentric parks and recreation worker will paint fanciful landscapes to create the seasonal scenery.

Herwig and Isle, who are husband and wife, conceived of the idea of garage plays when they bought their south Minneapolis house.

"We had a big garage and small car," Herwig said. "It was like kids walking into a playground. I thought, we could do a show in here."

They did. Friends, neighbors and strangers packed the place. Some came from miles away to catch their shows, which feature a stage, lighting, a sound system and seats far more comfortable than picnic benches or lawn chairs, Herwig said.

Admission is by a suggested donation of $5 to $15, but nobody is guarding the donation box, Herwig said.

"We don't make any money off it," he said. "But it gives access to the arts."

Part of the expense is covered with a grant through the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, better known as the Legacy Amendment. The amendment approved by voters in 2008 directs a portion of the money collected to support the arts.

Off-Leash's goal is to reach new audiences who might not take the plunge to travel into the city and spend $30 to see a show at a regular theater.

Since performances are considered "private events," hosts do not need permits to hold them. And in most cases, they even throw backyard barbecues and post-performance parties that allow show-goers to mingle with cast members and talk about everything from arts to gardening.

Still, attendance is limited to about 40 people, so reservations are recommended.

"Theater should be accessible to all kinds of people from all walks of life," said Brooklyn Park resident Sheila McMahon, who hosted the tour in 2010. "[The Garage Tour] feels like world-class theater in a small setting."

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

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