When Jennifer Ilse and her husband, Paul Herwig, bought their home in south Minneapolis, they joked that their two-car garage was big enough to stage a show.

Then they got to thinking. “We said, ‘Why not?’ ” Ilse recalled.

The couple are co-artistic directors of Off-Leash Area, a local theater company, and “we thought it sounded like a fun thing to do,” she said.

They pulled it off, and it became such an attraction that Off-Leash eventually rolled out its Neighborhood Garage Tour, which goes to various garages and the occasional barn all over the Twin Cities, akin to a traveling circus. As a matter of tradition, the tour always opens in the couple’s garage.

This year, Off-Leash plans to remount its original show, “The Picnic.” Written collaboratively with local writer and dancer Lightsey Darst, the play centers on an unlikely romance between a dog and a bird.

Right now, the company is booking garages for the tour, which starts around mid-August. The idea is to cover a wide geographic area. Off-Leash staffer Billie Jo Konze, a Ham Lake resident, said, “I’ve made it my personal mission to find a garage in the north metro.”

In the past, it’s been tough to line up garages in the area. So she’s contacting local organizations and businesses to generate interest. “The area could definitely be better served,” she said. “I’d like to see something in my neck of the woods.”

The company doesn’t sell tickets for the tour. Off-Leash accepts donations, but anyone is welcome to attend, Ilse said.

That speaks to the broader goals of the tour: to build community, push boundaries and make contemporary theater on this level accessible. Too often, contemporary theater is seen as elite, Ilse said.

As such, hosting a show on the tour is for anyone who is “really into the arts and interested in community development,” she said.

All that’s required is an average-looking two-car garage. Hosts help bring in an audience, similar to a producer, but get plenty of support, Ilse said. Off-Leash handles the logistics, everything from loading in the set to setting up the risers and chairs. A typical garage seats 40.

‘Professional theater — in my garage!’

Sheila McMahon heard about the tour during another Off-Leash show a few years ago. At the time, she lived in Brooklyn Park. “I turned to my husband, Jay, and said, ‘we’re doing that,’ ” she said.

She hadn’t considered how much cleanup her garage needed. Stepping into the space even after they’d organized everything, “It was difficult to envision the stage being there,” she said.

But the Off-Leash crew transformed the area into a “world-class theater,” she said. It made the show even more “fun to watch because even in a small space, Off-Leash makes very dynamic use of the stage,” she said.

Jon Skaalen, a local theater veteran who leads VSA Minnesota, has hosted the tour several times at his Stillwater home. “When the lights go down, a garage isn’t that much different from a bar, a winery, a country club dining room, a VFW hall, or even a real theater,” he said.

When the makeshift auditorium wasn’t full, he tracked down more patrons at the park. A group of children sat on the floor in the “first row,” and it was fun hearing people of all ages crack up, he said.

Minneapolis resident David O’Fallon, president of the Minnesota Humanities Center, likened the experience to the local food movement. The mantra for this might be, “Eat local, bike more, know your neighbors, and host professional theater in your garage,” he said. Beforehand, he posted signs around his neighborhood that advertised, “Professional theater — in my garage!”

The guerrilla tactic seemed to work, because “people walked by and walked in. Kids on bikes rolled in,” he said. In the end, “It belonged to the neighborhood.”

A story about the first year of the tour can be found at http://www.startribune.com/a2259.


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.