Michael Sommers was sitting out front of Open Eye Figure Theatre the other day, taking in some sunshine and watching the world whirl past. Rather than the cranky old gent who scolds kids away, however, Sommers is bringing youngsters inside his small theater — many for their first taste of live performance. The company, headed by Sommers and his wife, Susan Haas, opens the small play “Milly and Tillie” on Friday.
Open Eye has grown from a mom-and-pop storefront in which Sommers and Haas scrubbed the floors, refinished the woodwork, built the shows and performed. This summer, Sommers and Haas will send three teams out to 120 back-yard venues across the Twin Cities for the driveway-tour puppet shows. Last year 10,000 people saw the tour. In addition to the 16 showings of “Milly and Tillie,” Open Eye will present Kevin Kling’s new work, “Humanimal,” for 10 performances in August.
In their 90-seat south Minneapolis theater, there will be 104 performances this season; the company’s budget has nearly tripled since moving into the old Patrick’s Cabaret in south Minneapolis in late 2005. Sommers and Haas spend much of their time these days mentoring the next generation of actors, designers, puppeteers, directors and writers.
“We’re really looking at how to pass this on,” said Sommers in the studio next to the theater. Sommers and Haas, who won an Ivey in 2008 for “Prelude to Faust,” have been at their work for more than 30 years.
That same theme of “handing things off” comes up several times over the course of conversation. Haas talks about the summer driveway tours being a training ground for younger artists; Sommers, who also teaches at the University of Minnesota, works with former students helping them “develop their voice.”
Back to the work
The expansion has allowed Sommers to get smaller in his work, which always has been the bedrock on which Open Eye was built. For years, he operated in a small studio above Roberts Shoes on Lake Street in Minneapolis. He invited audiences of 30 to 40 people for short shows that relied on not much more than his imagination. Importantly, he is no longer Open Eye’s artistic director. He’s an artist in residence.
“I want to get back to figure-theater forms and investigate why I am still fascinated with this,” Sommers said in the kitchen of their workroom. “It’s less about the show and more about redefining theater.”
He recently returned from a Toy Theater festival in New York, a trip he made with one suitcase of characters and props.
“Touring with a suitcase is a great way to go,” he said with a smile. “Bring it in a box and set it up.”
Meanwhile, the troupe has used its resources to stage larger works, such as Sommers’ take on “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and a recent collaboration on “The Honeymooners.” Daughter Zoe Sommers Haas created “The Learning Fairy,” which was a big hit during two runs. “Dummy a Dis-Play” in 2009 also had the fuller contours of a large (for Open Eye) show — several live actors and characters.
Undergirding shows large and small is Open Eye’s philosophy of being an anchor in its south Minneapolis neighborhood.
“I need a sense of community that’s rooted here,” Haas said.
“Milly and Tillie,” which was presented during the Guthrie Theater’s 50th-anniversary celebration last Sunday, has been on Open Eye’s stage in 2010 and 2011. Elise Langer and Liz Schachterle created the show with director Jason Ballweber (best known for his work with Four Humors) and puppeteer Rachael Davis. It’s 45 minutes of silliness and surprises — with ice cream cones served afterward.
Schachterle is an example of Open Eye’s mission of training the next generation. Six years ago, she was Sommers’ student at the U. Now she’s working to further develop her voice as a performer and creator. She also works part-time as an administrative assistant.
“People pass through here to develop their skills,” Haas said.