Garage theater

  • Article by: HANNAH GRUBER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2010 - 5:21 PM

A small performing company out of Minneapolis is taking theater to an unlikely venue: People's garages.

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Actor Kym Longhi, left, and co-artistic director Jennifer Ilse built seating risers for a performance of “A Gift for Planet BX63” in a barn in Plymouth.

Photo: Brendan Sullivan, Star Tribune

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Who says theater needs to be performed in a grand auditorium? Not Paul Herwig and Jennifer Ilse. They believe their art can shine in people's garages.

Owners of Off-Leash Area, a Minneapolis-based company that creates and performs original dance and theatrical productions, Herwig and Ilse decided it was time to try something new.

Instead of bringing people to the theater, why not bring the theater to the people?

"A lot of times people in the suburbs don't have the time to commute back into the cities to see stuff," said Herwig. "There's also this stigma about what I call 'high-end performance,' that somehow it's not accessible to everybody."

Shortly after moving to their home in Minneapolis, the couple chose to park their cars on the street instead of in their new two-car garage. That, they decided, would be used for small-scale theater productions.

After nearly eight years of performing shows from their garage, they took their act on the road in August. They will be performing through Oct. 16 in communities from Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park to Blaine and Eagan.

"For some people these are the only shows they would go to," said Ilse. "They wouldn't even go to the big main-stage shows at theaters, so we thought it would be fun to tour it to other garages."

For Herwig and Ilse, who'd typically perform in venues like the Ritz Theatre in Minneapolis, trying out their garage was a foreign concept. Most of their shows seat up to 40 people, and instead of charging a standard admission ticket, the duo ask for donations of between $5 and $15.

"People think, 'OK, it's in a garage, so how good is it going to be, really?' and we have everything," said Herwig. "No one would imagine what we actually do in a garage."

For their "First Annual Garage Tour," the duo resurrected their popular show from 2007, "A Gift for Planet BX63." The production is an all-ages story about a girl (Ilse) who lives on a lonely planet at the edge of the galaxy and is visited by an intergalactic space salesman (Herwig) who sells her an object she doesn't need: A flower. The tale follows this girl, who becomes infatuated with her flower and ends up buying more and more products to keep her obsession alive.

Told in rhymed verse similar to Dr. Seuss, the show's universal theme of consumerism resonates with both children and adults, Herwig said.

"It's kind of like a traveling summer stock [theater], except we're not doing British farces, we're doing spaced-out psychedelic Dr. Seuss tales, which sounds fun to me," said Herwig. "Plus, having people hang out outside under the moonlight is completely different than in some lobby with seven-dollar beers."

Herwig and Ilse decided to bring back this production for the garage tour not only because of its popularity and relevance, but because of its innovation and creativity. For a large portion of the production, Ilse balances on one hand in order to create the illusion that she is floating in space.

Wanted: A few good garages

Herwig and Ilse had everything in place -- the show, the sets and the cast.

All they needed were garages in which to perform.

When Sheila McMahon of Brooklyn Park heard about their show, she moved her cars and swept out her garage.

McMahon learned about the upcoming garage tour when she attended one of Herwig and Ilse's garage performances a few months ago. She was stunned by the spectacle.

"It feels like world-class theater in a small setting," said McMahon.

Loving the intimacy of the garage theater and wanting to engage people in her own neighborhood, McMahon volunteered her garage.

"Theater should be accessible to all kinds of people from all walks of life, and it should be easy enough to get to have those experiences and not just something reserved for people who have more time," McMahon said.

McMahon's garage door will open to the public this Friday and Saturday.

"We're kind of taking the elite out of high-end professional theater and dance," said Herwig. "You don't have to go to one of the big institutions downtown -- you can just go to your neighborhood."

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  • THE 2010 TOUR

    For reservations, call 612-724-7372.

    7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Sheila and Jay McMahon, 7316 Cartisian Av., Brooklyn Park.

    7:30 p.m. Sept. 10-11. Steve and Jan Campbell, 3612 33rd Av. NE., St. Anthony.

    7:30 p.m. Sept. 24-25. Bill Mullaney, 1419 Washington Av. S., Minneapolis.

    7:30 p.m. Oct. 1-2. Craig Harris and Candy Kuehn, 718 6th St. SE., Minneapolis.

    7:30 p.m. Oct. 8-9. Susie Commers, 12935 Vermillion Ct. NE., Blaine.

    7:30 p.m. Oct. 15-16. Steve Chavez, 1587 Skyline Path, Eagan.

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